by Mary Renault
"Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their words."
-- Simonides of Keos (Epitaph of the Spartans who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae)
"Born into a stern farming family on the island of Keos, Simonides escapes his harsh childhood through a lucky apprenticeship with a renowned Ionian singer. As they travel through fifth-century B.C. Greece, Simonides learns not only how to play the kithara and compose poetry, but also how to navigate the shifting alliances surrounding his rich patrons. He is witness to the Persian invasion of Ionia the decadent reign of the Samian pirate king Polykrates, and the fall of the Pisistratids in the Athenian court. Along the way, he encounters artists, statesmen, athletes, thinkers, and lovers, including the likes of Pythagoras and Aischylos. Using the singer's unique perspective, [author Mary] Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable knowledge of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century." (From the back of the Vintage Books edition.)
As much as I love Steven Pressfield's novels of ancient war, the first name that comes to my mind when I think of fiction set in Ancient Greece is Mary Renault. The Praise Singer is not a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat page turner, but it is elegant prose that shows life in fifth-century Greece from an outside-in perspective. Simonides' patron and friend is a ruler of Athens, but Simonides himself is only an observer of the politics of the day, not a participant. Much information is received via conversation. Therefore, while a lot happens in the course of the story, there is not a significant amount of action. I tell you this only because readers who prefer action will be disappointed.
I very much enjoyed The Praise Singer. While I can't speak to Renault's absolute accuracy as far as historical facts or detail, I always feel transported to the setting when I read her work. From the quiet life in the countryside to the private parties of the affluent to the excitement of the Olympic games, I can see them clearly. Her characters are not usually well-rounded, but they serve their purpose in giving the reader a feel for the times and the people who lived them.
NOTICE: (Updated March 5, 2010)
Beginning December 19, 2009, Books 'N Border Collies will be posting but only intermittently while I pursue personal goals. I plan to share some reading I'm doing, but there will be no reviews. I will, however, be sharing my exploration of vegetarian cooking and the cookbooks and websites I use to educate myself. I hope you enjoy it!