I usually like to do some sort of research before I pick up a book to read. I check reviews from sources I trust and look at recommendations from friends and blogs I like. Like many people, I’m busy and don’t have time for crappy books, so I like to maximize my chances when I can. That said, I had heard no advance word about Black Ships by Jo Graham. All I had to go by was the cover, which jumped out at me one day while shelving. The face of a pale woman, eyes and lips rimmed in black, pupils dark and wide, over some ancient Greek-looking ships, with the entire cover laced with some sort of cracked effect like you would see on an old Renaissance painting.
Black Ships is set in ancient Greece and is about Gull, a slave girl from a conquered tribe who injures her foot in an accident. Not able to work, like the others, she is given to the local temple and groomed to be a priestess. At night, she dreams of nine black ships fleeing a burning city. Those ships soon arrive on the horizon, full of people from her tribe, looking to bring together scattered remnants and find a new place to settle and grow. She abandons her life and joins the group, including prince Neas, and becomes their spiritual leader as they adventure across the Mediterranean, fighting obstacles and war-thirsty Greeks wanting to finish the job they started earlier.
Actually, Black Ships is a retelling of Vigil’s Latin epic Aeneid, about the founding of Rome by the soldier Aeneas after the fall of Troy. Instead of focusing on the young king, Jo Graham tells the story through the point of view of one of the tribe’s members, Gull, who as the group’s lone priest quickly becomes an important part of preserving the group’s culture and traditions. Instead of the swashbuckling epic that it could be, Black Ships is more concerned with survival. Graham keeps things moving, with the unwanted refugees loosely following the path of Virgil’s story as they search for a land to call their own, from Egypt to Italy, with Greeks in pursuit.
I’m a bit hesitant to place this book in a specific genre – “historical fiction” is a bit too broad. It’s certainly not an epic, as I mentioned earlier, with the action focused on survival of the tribe as a whole instead of merely killing enemies or seeking glory. It’s not a romance, but Graham places a priority on relationships (Gull loves Prince Neas, but she’s not clear if it’s a brotherly love or a romantic one. And yes, there’s a love triangle or two to deal with.) I’ve seen it classified as a fantasy but what fantastical elements there are along the lines of visions and such, so it’s not that either. I’d almost go with “historical women’s fiction” except that’s not exactly accurate, either. Screw it; read it without classification and enjoy. It’s a surprisingly good read.