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The Songs of the Kings: A Novel (Unsworth, Barry) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 18, 2003

26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Provocative and subversive, Unsworth's new novel rewrites ancient history to show how a wily, ambitious and power-hungry man can distort the truth, convince the masses to support him and incite his country to wage war. It's an audacious blending of myth with sharp contemporary resonance. The setting is Aulis in 1260 B.C., where unfavorable winds are keeping the fleet of the Greek expeditionary force (actually a motley assemblage of hostile and predatory tribes loosely united under Agamemnon) from setting out to capture Troy. The pretext is revenge for the "rape" of Helen by Paris, but Agamemnon and such tribal leaders as Achilles and Odysseus are, in fact, lusting for the fabled treasures of Troy, spoils of war that each man, down to the most common soldier, yearns to possess. Unsworth (Sacred Hunger) reveals this complex intrigue slowly as he explores the critical situation on which the narrative hinges: the omens that explain Zeus's wrath and the prophecy that only the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigeneia, will reverse the contrary winds. We know of this event from Homer, of course, and he appears here as the Singer, a far from noble figure who is influenced by the conspirators to fashion the version fed to him by Odysseus. It is the hero of The Odyssey who gradually emerges as the chief villain, cynically manipulating his cohorts as he exploits the prophecy to serve his own ends. And it is Iphigeneia, lured to Aulis by false promises, who shows more moral courage than the king, his enemies or any of the court sycophants who seek only their own advantage. Unsworth's narrative method is as daring as his message; his prose is a mixture of classic cadences and contemporary vernacular, animated by beautifully descriptive vignettes and bawdy humor. He uses a minor figure, Calchas the diviner, as the means through which the reader understands the political machinations that create the illusion of a just war. "People intent on war always need a story, and the singers always provide one.... What [this] is really about is gold and copper and cinnamon and jade and slaves and timber," Calchas says. "It is the stories told by the strong, the songs of kings, that are believed in the end..-- is really about is gold and copper and cinnamon and jade and slaves and timber," Calchas says. "It is the stories told by the strong, the songs of kings, that are believed in the end."
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

A stubborn wind from the northeast ushers in rough times for the House of Atreus, and the Greek ships, en route to Troy, remain trapped in the straits at Aulis. Unsworth's retelling of the story, familiar from Euripides, of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia to appease the gods so that the boats can sail is a bold, modern tale with cynical riffs on the themes of duty and power, truth and fiction. His Greek warriors are schemers and media-savvy self-promoters who are desperate to look good in the sung reports that are their equivalent of the news media—songs that are, we realize, the seeds of the Homeric tradition. As Odysseus says, "Once things get into the Song you will never entirely succeed in getting them out again."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Series: Unsworth, Barry
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st ed. in the United States of America edition (March 18, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385501145
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385501149
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,626,418 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By C. Collins on May 15, 2004
Format: Paperback
Barry Unsworth is clever. He tells the story of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia but his commentary is relevant to all times, especially our own. His insertion of contemporary expressions added wry humor. Agamemnon, however, remained a puzzle, motivated by greed and power, determined to unite the Greeks and destroy the Trojans, he is manipulated into a cul de sac by his chief scribe, Odysseus, and the priests of Zeus. He must sacrifice his beloved daughter to appease Zeus and thus change the winds in favor of the Greek fleet. Odysseus, the scribe, and the priests continue to support this course of action openly to build consensus among hte Greeks and maintain the unity of the Greek troops. The one false note here is that when a powerful leader is forced into making such a sacrifice by his counselors, his resentment later erupts to destroy those who manipulated him into a corner. Odysseus was too clever not to recognize that Agamemnon's resentment would eventually erupt and be aimed at those who restricted his previous course of action.
Homosexuality was dealt with in the novel as an ordinary daily occurance, both in the relationship between the priest of Apollo, Calchas and his beautiful acolyte and then in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, his cousin and lover. Achilles had the cruelty and arrogance of the beautiful and athletic demi-god, cutting of the head of a thief for a petty crime.
Unsworth reveals the desires for power and wealth that motivated the Greeks, using the seduction/kidnapping of Helen by Paris as a pretext. The wronged husband Menelaus is a fool, rapist, bore that surely was disgusting to Helen. In the same way that Agamemnon's revenge was never fully developed, Iphigenia's agreement to her own sacrificial death was not fully developed either.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Alejandro Teruel on July 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
If you enjoy debunking, a hard headed cynical view of human nature and motives, and real politiks, you will like the premises of this retelling of the Ancient Greek story of King Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia on his way to Troy. Superficially this is a historical novel, with jarring and sardonic intrusions of current political doublespeak which turn into a satire clearly intended for our times.
This is not the first anachronistic retelling of a homeric tale or of Greek myths in Western literature. The great Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and particularly Euripides, rewrote many of the incidents in Homer, debunking heroic myths and exposing the underlying human tragedies; Racine and Corneille continued this tradition in France, Shakespeare contributed to the tradition in his play "Troilus and Cressida", in which, according to the Shakespearean critic G. Wilson Knight:
"The Trojan party stands for human beauty and worth, the Greek party for the bestial and stupid elements of man, the barren stagnancy of intellect divorced from action..." In a sense, some of Freud's key insights are not only based on his knowledge and fascination with Greek myths but explain why the myths have endured and need to be retold generation after generation.
Thus, Barry Unsworth continues with a millennial urge to wrap an ancient story in a more modern language, and chooses to put some new twists on Euripides' classic play "Iphigenia at Aulis".
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Gypsi Phillips Bates VINE VOICE on March 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In this novel, Unsworth retells Greek story/myth of Agamemnon, Iphigeneia and the wind at Aulis that just wouldn't stop so that the Greeks could sail to attack Troy and reclaim Helen and their honor.
He writes with a delicious, tongue-in-cheekiness, fleshing out the characters to real people with real, and sometimes annoying, personality traits. The great hero Odysseus is a cocky trouble maker with a penchant for hearing himself speak. Achilles is flamboyant and egotistical. Agamemnon is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power. Short, unattractive Menelaus is convinced that only kidnapping could have pulled Helen from his side and, um, prowess.
The main theme of the story, though unspoken, is that of public relations--"good press" if you will. The will of the people was easily manipulated through the innuendo, stories and sometimes outright lies told by the Singer. As there was only one Singer in the camp, his good opinion--and his song--was bought by the highest bidder. What they heard the Singer tell was what became the truth. A jab at modern day press, perhaps?
The story is often told from the standpoint of outsiders. Calchas, an Asian priest who has found favor with Agamemnon tells a large part of the narrative, as does Iphigeneia's maid Sisipyla. This looking in from the outside gives a different slant to the story, showing some actions, events and gods as alien.
This alien-ness is balanced by the views of Odysseus (as in the above quotation) and other Greek characters, both major and minor, seeing their world as the only natural way. These two views combine with good solid writing to form a fascinating tale that is hard to put down, even though I knew how it was going to end.
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