Thursday, October 22, 2020

The King Must Die (Theseus #1) by Mary Renault

I am forever grateful to the friend who turned me onto Mary Renault's writing. I cut my teeth on The Persian Boy, and have always intended to dip into her other books. Renault also has a connection to my home town – she bought a home in Camps Bay, a beautiful seaside suburb. I get the idea that after World War II she was so over everything. 

But getting back to The King Must Die (Theseus #1), this is Renault's telling of Theseus's story. Those of us who are au fait with their Greek mythology will know he's the chap who whacked the dreaded minotaur in its labyrinth. Renault effortlessly takes the story out of myth and breathes life into it, spinning a plausible reconstruction of the myth.

Theseus is no Hercules. Short of stature, and the son of a king and a priestess, he has a sense of entitlement and quick wit that more than make up for his shortcomings. Which gets him into sufficient trouble as much as it sees him through sticky situations. Crowned as Eleusian king when he participates in their annual king-sacrificing rite, he knows he has a year to live before he too must make way for the next king.

And even in Eleusis he carves a name for himself, so that he eventually reveals himself to his father Aigeus in Athens, it is on equal footing. Yet this touching reunion is short lived, because Theseus and a number of fellow Athenian youths end up as the tribute for the Cretan bull-dancing. There's even a whiff of magic involved, as Theseus is one of those rare individuals who is sensitive to incipient earthquakes, and perceives himself a scion of the god Poseidon.

Full of courtly intrigue, this story explores the ancient times in a way that is far more vivid than any history book. While the writing is far more formal than what I'm used to, Renault captivates with her achingly beautiful descriptions of the Greek Isles, its people, the architecture, and the culture.  Theseus is a catalyst for change in the societies in which he acts – gleefully overturning old customs that have outlived their usefulness and heedless of the damage he causes. So perhaps there is a bit of a trickster in him too. He's not a particularly nice character – some of his actions had me raising my brow – but he's very much a compelling narrator.

If you're looking for historical fiction that will paint ancient Greek myths into life, then The King Must Die will offer a vivid canvas.

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