I got a kindle copy of The Book of Helen for free in exchange for a review.
Remember Helen of Troy? She has lived to a ripe old age, her husband Menelaus died of natural causes. Her step-children are all interested in showing her the door, one way or another. Her only option is to fly to Rhodes, only Rhodes’ Queen Ployoxo has other ideas for her.
Being a historian, I’m wary of “historical novels,” mainly because so many are either BS, or they try too hard to be “authentic.” The Book of Helen doesn’t have this problem. Sure, it has various and sundry elements of Greek life, but they’re implemented casually and effortlessly. It might be in a historical setting, but it doesn’t try to ram all of their studies down your throat.
There are parts of this book that read like a Greek myth version of The West Wing (the early years, when it was about strategy and process, and not about slant). Helen is a political genius, almost a savant, and can manage crowd, and is basically “the hostess with the mostess” on steroids. The resulting style feels very much like Mary Stewart meets Clare Booth Luce. The Book of Helen retells the story of the original Troy incident with little to no interference from deities, and no magic. If there is a god involved anywhere, the meddling is implied, with just a hint of an explanation. When Paris meets Helen, she assumes that the story of discord’s apple is merely a pickup line. On the other hand, like Clare Booth Luce’s play The Women, Antonetti has a nice, crisp way of addressing the character traits and social tactics of other women. And let’s throw in flashbacks reminiscent of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where the stories are told in interrogation-style fashion.
From a historical point of view, it’s nice that someone remembers that Helen was of Sparta, as in “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” Yes, she does know how to shoot arrows at people. Sparta and its society also acts as a major plot point.
One of the more interesting elements in the story revolves around Helen’s servant, Pythia, a slave who becomes Helen’s scribe. The relationship between the two of them is very much like a Doctor Who companion, or Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes — while Helen is a political and social genius for the big picture, almost bordering on the savant, she has blind spots about comment sense matters that Pythia must smack her upside the head over. The interplay has some fun elements to it, and adds a lot of the charm to this book.
Also, this has some nice themes along with it: grief, envy, hard work, a sideways pro-life message if you want to read into it that way. This is also the first time I’ve seen someone turn the concept of bella figura into a working concept in fiction (a concept that basically says that it is not enough to do good, one must also look good while doing it).
Now, why is this review not a 5/5? Let’s discuss.
There is too much talking at times, and not enough action. I also wanted more physical descriptions. Does Helen now have grey hair, or is it still blonde? I caught implications that she was either going grey, but had enough blonde still left over to hide any grey; she’s “still as beautiful as ever,” but has she aged gracefully like Erin Grey, or did she not age at all? No idea.
And the speeches just kept going. Maybe if they were broken up a little more and turned into something like discussions, and not Dostoevsky monologues …it still would have been too much talking, but it wouldn’t have been a blizzard of words. There were moments my eyes crossed. Chapter six is the first time the reader will come across it, but if you slog through it, I promise that the rest of the book will be worth the time.
By the end, I wanted more. I wanted more of the story, more of the people, more time with the various and sundry characters, just more. There’s a sequel too The Book of Helenplanned, called The Book of Penelope.
If and/or when it comes out, I will be reading it.
Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.