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!


Monday, October 26, 2009


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.


Teddy Rose said...

This sounds like one that I would enjoy. I have never read Mary Renault.

joanna said...

Glad you enjoyed it Lezlie. I always like to know how accurate the history is in books like this... I'd be interested in getting more info on this one. It's a bit different, but if you're interested in Rome, you should read Lindsay Davies - a friend who does historical re-enactment etc recommended her to me when I was in my ancient Rome phase.

Lezlie said...

Teddy Rose ~ I'd love to know what you think of her if you read one. Her stories are not super-exciting, but sometimes I really like slow, deliberate pacing and passive observation.

Joanna ~ There is an author's note at the end that explains how she put the story together. It's not surprising that there was actually very little definitive information to work with as far as some of the characters, but she describes some of the specifics and how she made her decisions. I love when authors do that!

I have seen Lindsay Davies books. If I get on a Roman kick, I'll be sure to check them out. Thanks for the recommendation!


Michelle Moran said...

Ohhh... I definitely need to add this one to the pile!!

Lezlie said...

Michelle ~ You might want to check out her books about Theseus also: The King Must Die and The Bull From The Sea.


Jeane said...

I read a few Renault books once- I think the Mask of Apollo was one of them- and tried The King Must Die but didn't make it through. I remember her writing being exactly as you said- a vivid portrayal of how people lived in a time and place long ago, but not really gripping storytelling or in-depth characters.

Lezlie said...

Jeane ~ I *really* liked The King Must Die, but I must have caught it at just the right time. I have to be in exactly the right mood for her books -- very sedate, where I don't want things happening too quickly. :-) I haven't read The Mask of Apollo yet, but I'm sure it will show up here eventually.


Allie ~ Hist-Fic Chick said...

Lezlie, this sounds like something I would really enjoy. I'm not typically someone who needs constant action in my books so long as there is a strong back story to keep the book moving. I've been stocking up on some ancient Greek hist-fic lately; better add this one to the list!

Lezlie said...

Allie ~ I've seen more bloggers DNF Renault than not, but I really like her. I hope you do, too! I hear her Alexander trilogy is the best, but I haven't read that yet.