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A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus Paperback – October 17, 2017
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Song of Survival and Epilogue by Vicky Alvear Shecter: I grinned when I realized Vicky Alvear Shecter wrote the first story in A Sea of Sorrow. Her interpretation of Odysseus in A Song of War blew me away and I was immediately comforted by the knowledge that I was in the hands of an author I trusted with the material.
Having said that, I want to note that neither “Song of Survival” nor the “Epilogue” are relayed from Odysseus’s point of view. Shecter’s stories center on the family he left behind and the impact of his extended absence. Telemachus, as a boy in a matriarchal home, is at great disadvantage and I liked how Shecter’s narrative captured the social and developmental repercussion of his circumstances. I was equally impressed with the substance she gifted Penelope. Odysseus’ queen is often portrayed as a woman with her eyes fixed longingly on the horizon and I appreciated how dynamic and capable she came to be in Shecter’s hands.
* Best Moment in A Sea of Sorrow – Fell out of my chair laughing over the whore on Whore island. *
Xenia in the Court of the Winds by Scott Oden: Scott Oden was a new author for me and I’d honestly no idea what to expect going into “Xenia in the Court of the Winds.” Looking back, however, I want to caution readers from taking this piece for granted. The story is exceptional in both tone and composition and proves one of most thought-provoking submissions in all of The H Team collaborations.
Homer’s Polyphemus is a monster, but the depth Oden gifted his Kyklops turns the original source material on its head while exploring the cultural diversity that characterized ancient Greece. The idea sent chills of excitement down my spine and I thrilled at how Oden used history to authenticate his fiction and challenge his audience with the grim realities of culture clash and intolerance.
* Best Character in A Sea of Sorrow – Writing a hero is easy, reinventing a villain is an art. *
Hekate’s Daughter by Libbie Hawker: I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Libbie Hawker in person, but I’m familiar with her through social media and I love how “Hekate’s Daughter” illustrates both her personality and artistic strengths.
The story fearlessly dives into feminist ideology, but Hawker is careful to keep the content appropriate to the historic lens of her narrative. It’s a balance few are able to effectively pull off, but the end result is a story that invites the reader to interact with the narrative and take something very relevant from their experience of the material.
* Best Individual Theme in a Sea of Sorrow – Great ideas make thought-provoking fiction. *
The Siren’s Song by Amalia Carosella: According to Greek mythology, a siren is a creature that is half bird and half woman. They’re known for luring sailors to their doom through the seductive tone of their song and though their appearance in The Odyssey is brief, it is without doubt my favorite scene of the epic poem. Needless to say the pressure was on as I began reading Amalia Carosella’s “The Siren’s Song.”
This story, more than any of the others, pays tribute to Greek mythology and its influence on ancient society. The collection intentionally avoids the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean its characters don’t believe in the Gods and I loved how Carosella used that to her advantage in "The Siren's Song." There is a tragic symmetry to the piece, but it plays out beautifully and provides some of the most poignant moments in A Sea of Sorrow.
* Best Ironic Moment in A Sea of Sorrow – True to the source material, yet wholly original *
Calypso’s Vow by David Blixt: David Blixt’s “Calypso’s Vow” caught me off guard. Homer paints Calypso as an unconscionable temptress and the idea of jumping into her shoes didn’t strike me as an appealing means of passing the time. I was both hesitant and skeptical which is amusing to admit as it took all of a few paragraphs for the story to knock me clean off my feet.
“Calypso’s Vow” marks a turning point for Odysseus as he comes to acknowledge the wreckage he’s wrought on the world. It’s a story redemption, but it was his lover’s grace and emotional sacrifice that captured my imagination. Blixt effectively redefined Calypso and in so doing, crafted a story that cuts straight to the heart.
* Best Submission in A Sea of Sorrow – Absolute perfection. *
The King in Waiting by Russell Whitfield: Until now, The H Team collaboratives have featured a cast that wander in and out of multiple stories, but the nature of The Odyssey isolated most of the narrators and placed unusual pressure on the author tasked with anchoring the collection. Shecter penned the "Epilogue," but it is Russell Whitfield who gave voice to the phantom who casts his shadow over each of these stories and ultimately brings Odysseus home.
“The King in Waiting” sees Odysseus facing the realities of his legacy, accepting his role in Ithaca’s misfortune, and setting his kingdom to rights. It is an interesting emotional journey and I quite liked how it played out, but I was surprised at how Whitfield used Amphinomus to temper Odysseus’ triumph. Whitfield’s fleshing out of the younger man creates a bittersweet note in the fabric of the narrative, but I couldn’t help appreciating how he used Amph’s fate to bring Odysseus the direction he so desperately lacked.
* Best Surprise in A Sea of Sorrow – It ain’t over till it’s over. *
The individual stories are united by a number of common themes and all present the stories in a realistic, prosaic way, shorn of the mythological element of Homer’s version. Here the gods do not intervene in human affairs, although the characters retain their belief in the gods. There are no monsters, just men made monstrous. There is a real life explanation for all the events and the motivations are all too human.
One theme running through all the stories is the concept of xenia or guest-friendship. It is clearly illustrated in one of the tales I particularly enjoyed, Xenia in the Court of the Winds, which focuses on Polyphemus, the monstrous Cyclops of Homer’s The Odyssey. However in Scott Oden’s story, Polyphemus is no monster but re-cast as a sympathetic, human figure who has suffered cruelly at the hands of Odysseus and now finds himself a helpless refugee dependent on others (surely a theme of contemporary relevance). Arriving on the island of Aeolia, Polyphemus is greeted with anger and suspicion by the islanders and it is only a boy, Glaukos, who responds in the true spirit of xenia to Polyphemus. As Glaukos explains, ‘Xenia…is the duty one man owes to another: that he offer the hospitality of his oikos, his household, to a stranger in need.’ When Polyphemus recounts his tale, it becomes clear that one of Odysseus’s crimes was to abuse the guest-friendship offered to him.
Another story I really liked was Penelope’s story, Song of Survival by Vicky Alvear Shecter. Deserted by her husband, we see Penelope’s cleverness and everyday practicality as she deals with the issues facing the kingdom of Ithaca. Penelope has a refreshingly no-nonsense view of her husband’s character and comes pretty close to the mark as she wonders how he will account for his absence should he return. “Will you blame a god for what was surely your decision – and probably on a whim – to pursue more glory? Will you spin fantastical accounts that absolve you of the consequences from the choices you made? Of goddesses who seduced? Monsters who attacked? Beasts who betrayed?”
Odysseus’s reputation as a ‘trickster’ is another theme of the stories. The amiable teller of riddles is revealed as a deceiver and liar. ‘His tales were as smooth as a fine wine. But always there was a hint of something just under the surface – something sour, but too subtle to the palate to call it a bald-faced lie.’
The most sympathetic rendition of Odysseus is in the story, Calypso’s Vow by David Blixt. Here we see Odysseus racked by guilt at the death of comrades, his betrayal of Circe, his failure to assist the Sirens and his hubris (another theme of the stories). Recognising himself as a habitual oath-breaker, Odysseus’s time on Calypso’s isle becomes a self-imposed test of his ability to be true to an oath. For once, his skills and experience are used in the service of others.
I really enjoyed reading this collection of imaginative stories which, although the product of different writers, share a common style that gives a feeling of continuity. I think readers familiar with The Odyssey will enjoy the new perspectives the stories provide on established characters. Equally, I believe they will encourage readers not familiar with The Odyssey to seek out Homer’s original.
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Song of Survival by Vicky Alvear Shecter
Xenia in the...Read more