Chasing Odysseus: Sulari Gentill
Sulari Gentill, an up and coming Australian author, takes her readers on a fascinating, exciting journey in Chasing Odysseus.
Every now and then, a book comes along that truly catches my imagination and sparks a real relationship between my mind, emotions, and the story and its characters.
Chasing Odysseus is one of these rare finds.
I was fortunate to stumble across this book shortly after it was published and being “Greek-mad,” as in obsessively interested in stories about ancient Greece, I wanted to see what it was about. The title itself, Chasing Odysseus, immediately intrigued me as it created mental images of high adventure and intense emotion.
The Herdsmen, led by gentle Agelaus, have been providing Troy with food for ten years through hidden tunnels. So that’s how the Trojans avoided starving to death! What an intriguing idea. Though the Greeks know of the Herdsmen, they don’t know about this secret assistance going to their enemies, and Agelaus deftly keeps it that way.
Dawn blooms on the last day, the day the Greeks have vanished, leaving a gigantic wooden horse on the beach. Everyone knows what happens. The Trojans take the horse through the gates and into the city. Night falls; everyone expects to feast and celebrate the end of this tiresome, endless war.
Agelaus, his four beloved foster children, and other Herdsmen prepare to move food and supplies through the tunnels and take part in the festivities.
Imagine their shock and horror as they climb out of the tunnels to see Trojans being slaughtered before their eyes.
Chasing Odysseus is a young adult novel. I didn’t expect there to be a realistic rendering of the sack of Troy. In this I was wrong. It is brutal. The few Trojan survivors, most notably Scamandrious, are brought to safety through the tunnels. Almost immediately this man turns on his rescuers. I was impressed at this point by how everything ties together so believably and poignantly. As much as I hated the loyal Herdsmen being maliciously and far too quickly sacrificed to the terror and rage of the moment, labeled as traitors, used as convenient scapegoats, it made perfect sense. How else could the Greeks have gotten in? The truth about the horse was not yet known. It was just a lifeless wooden statue in the minds of the Trojans. So the Herdsmen fell under suspicion as the long time guardians of the secret tunnels. How easy it would have been for them to show the Greeks the way in.
The heartbreaking culmination of these accusations is the murder of Agelaus and the near-murder of his son.
Which brings me to the children. Three boys and one girl, all dropped off, so to speak, by the Amazons, to be raised by the Herdsmen. They are: Machaon, Lycon, Cadmus, and Hero, the lone girl. These four young people not surprisingly become extremely close, and live an idyllic life, for the most part, in the hills around Troy, as the Greeks think of them as unimportant and leave them in peace.
The four protagonists are beautifully drawn, completely realistic, true to their times, and likeable. Their personalities run the gamut. I could see them in my mind’s eye clearly. Hero’s life is particularly sheltered as her devoted brothers, loving father, and the whole tribe watch over her, since she suffers a rather serious physical disability with her sight. She could be whiny and spoiled but she isn’t. She is, very believably, in awe and trepidation of the gods, of their vindictiveness, of their swift anger and power and need for vengeance. In her short life, she has already been abandoned by her mother and witnessed this relentless, seemingly endless war with Mycenae and its supporters. Hero, watched over by her family and wanting to return what she could of their devotion, does her best to give them the only protections she can think of: a softening of the gods’ fickle feelings. She conducts formal sacrifices and offers sincere prayers, all designed to build a bulwark of safety around those she loves.
Now, however, she must face the fact that all she has done is for nothing. She is forced to endure the death of her father, the horrible torture of her brother, and the absolute condemnation of her people.
This will not stand. And so we come to the decision that changes the lives of these children forever. After consulting with Pan, the Herdsmen’s special god, they determine there is only one living person who can clear their names.
Pan gives them his magical Phaeacian ship and the foursome set out to find the Greek strategist, drag him back to Troy, and force him to tell the truth.
Many adventures are experienced on their quest, for the wily Odysseus manages to keep one step ahead.
Gentill’s vision here is flawless. The story moves swiftly and draws in the reader with its plausibility. The four children of Agelaus show their true characters in their determination to clear their father’s name and the reputation of their people. As one can imagine, they chase Odysseus and partake in all of that hero’s adventures as he tries to make his way home. We visit the islands Odysseus visits. We meet the Cyclops Polyphemus, Circe, and the terrifying Scylla. We suffer through the turmoil of Charybdis and come to the floating island of Aeolia. We sail through the straits where the Sirens sing and engage with Calypso. In my favorite scene, we accompany the siblings to Hades, where a conversation takes place with the dead Achilles and a confession is made I hardly dared hope to see. He says: “I have met Hector, Odysseus. Hector, whose body I dragged around the walls of Troy behind my chariot, in view of his parents, his people…I have met Pentheselia, whose body I used as it lay dead and bloodied beneath me.”
In Hades, the four siblings are even reunited briefly with their father. Finally, they come to Scherie, land of the Phaeacians, the birthplace of their wondrous vessel. Each of these places brings danger, daring, adventure, and hope. In every one of these places the reader wonders how the young people will escape, how they will achieve their goal.
As to my feelings about the famous characters from Homer’s Odyssey? I’ve read a lot over the years about ancient Greek heroes and I’ve discovered, as anyone can who cares to dig deep enough, that these larger-than-life men have come down through history with auras of false divinity surrounding them while the less than heroic actions they took have been largely forgotten. Hercules, Theseus, Achilles, (Achilles especially) have darker sides and I have come to look upon these shallow accounts, which depict them as perfect men, with suspicion. So I appreciated Gentill’s more realistic (and rare) depiction of Odysseus. When it comes to Greek myths, one can have all childhood notions shattered by reading a little deeper.
To be thoroughly happy with a story, I need a little romance. I am happy to report that this requirement, too, was fulfilled and we are left knowing there is more to come on that score.
The book is beautifully illustrated with the author’s own art.
Trying War, the second book in this series, will be available soon.