3 out of 4 stars
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Tyrants and Poets by Steven R. Green is historical fiction based in Ancient Greece. Teenage girl Cleis is sent from her home to the town of Brauron to complete the Arkteia, a rite of passage for girls approaching womanhood. She is a strong, independent young woman who doesn't want to follow the path set for her by her family, of finding a man and spending her life as a devoted housewife. As one girl tearfully asks: "Why can Artemis run free when we must surrender to a husband?" Looking out to sea, Cleis is tempted by the prospect of travel and adventure. Her friend Antiope shares her hunger to explore the world. Eurybiades, a member of the Spartan infantry, buys Cleis from her father and makes her his wife. After a time living together, his eye wanders to other women, and Cleis plans her escape...
This book has plenty of rich, evocative description. For example: "The stringent scent of pine mingled with the sharp seduction of thyme, sage, and oregano, which was then sweetened by the redolence of lilacs and oleander." This really brings the story to life, especially when incorporating smells and other senses. Parts of the narrative - dealing with the poet, Sappho, and her followers - are particularly sensual, as they are very free with their physical affections toward each other. The author handles these scenes deftly, with plenty of sexuality and sexual activity portrayed without devolving into crude pornography.
Tyrants and Poets includes much talk of the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece - such as Zeus, Aphrodite, Eros, and Ares - and of honouring the past. There is a real sense of history and folklore, with the "present" of the story brought to life beautifully through food, clothing, and customs of the time. The only slight negative is that readers lacking prior knowledge - of items of clothing with unusual names, for instance - might take time to work out what the named items are. However, the context is usually enough to suggest the type of garment.
Green includes a note at the end of the book on the ease with which he was able to research all the historical figures on the internet. This shows throughout the story; the environment feels totally immersive, filled with uniquely named items from Ancient Greece. Unfortunately, not much of a Greek scholar myself, I found it a little confusing at times. However, I learned plenty! There are a few difficult names such as Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Eurybiades, and Antimenidas. These slowed me down and took me out of the story a little as I struggled to pronounce them in my head when reading them.
The attitude of men toward women, particularly in Athens, is archaic and chauvinistic compared to the relative equality of the sexes today. Eurybiades pays Cleis's father a dowry for his teenage daughter's hand in marriage, roughly takes her virginity before the wedding, then jokes about it with the girl's father right after the event! Given this complete lack of respect for women, I was not surprised to see Cleis make her escape to seek adventure with poet Sappho and her followers.
I found ten minor errors in the first quarter of the book, including a few misspellings of the name Charoxos as "Charaxos" and "Chalaxos". There was also occasional incorrect word use, such as "alluded" for "eluded" and "drawer" for "draw". Overall, I rate Tyrants and Poets 3 out of 4 stars, with one star removed for these errors. I feel this book is a little heavy for the casual reader. I would recommend it more for scholars with a strong interest in Ancient Greece. The descriptive writing and poetry are of high quality, making this a worthwhile read for those who enjoy this sort of historical fiction.
Tyrants and Poets
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