Book Review

Black Ships by Jo Graham


Title: Black Ships
Author: Jo Graham
Publication Info: Orbit 2008
ISBN: 0314068004
Genre: Historical: Other

I have a few reviews to write, two of which are for books that aren’t really romance. One is part of a series that follows a growing romance (hur hur) and one is a YA novel that isn’t a romance though it has vague romantic elements.

And then there this book. It’s not a romance. It does not have a happy ending as per a romance novel. It has a peaceful ending. There’s a big ol multi-sided love triangle with mutiple layers going around and around. There’s adventure on the high seas, oracles, war, parables, retellings of mythology, and very delicious men. But this is not a romance.

However, I read it, and I have a few things to say, but this won’t be like my normal romance reviews where I go off on some tangent about man-titty or swords or something.

Gull is a young girl born of rape, whose mother was taken in the sack of Wilusa, the Hittite word for Troy. After an accident that hobbles her leg, Gull is chosen to be an acolyte to the Lady of the Dead, and she sees visions of future events, starting with an omen of black ships. The black ships arrive, carrying the remnants of her lost home after yet another sack of Wilusa, and she sails away with them, even though doing so violates many of the rules of being the Dead’s handmaiden. Gull walks between knowing what the future will look like and not knowing when it’ll show up, and not knowing at all what will happen to her or to the tiny portion of Wilusa that travels with her.

The beginning of the story is demanding. It demands your attention and your time, and it demands that you not put the book down because something is always about to happen within the first few chapters, to the point where reading becomes an exercise in apprehension. In addition, the visual imagery used in the opening scenes is bleak – white paints, black cloaks, white stones, black ships – and belies the complexity and nuances of the story ahead of it.

And the story….

If you are disturbed by discussions of war, by depictions of battle, death, and the harm of children or the rape of women, I would caution you about reading this book. I’m immensely disturbed by these things, and I have to remind myself that I’m still “post partum” with hormones and hair loss to match (oh, my freaking God, the hair loss) and I need to be cautious when I pick up material like this.

That said, this book was important to read right now, not only because it’s haunting and vivid, but it raises questions about war, about the wars that are being fought right now, and about defining countries and societies, and about how we treat prisoners of war and the widows and fatherless children left behind after battle. This story is based on the Aeneid, so fans of that particular time in history will be happy as clams in mud, but because it’s about war and the loss and recovery of peace, it also matters as a reflection of current times.

Moreover, while the writing is often elementary in tone and the heroine didn’t grow so much as grow older, the imagery and the characters – particularly the men, Neas, Xandros, Kos, and Hyl – are marvelously crafted and vividly entertaining. The flaws and distance in Gull, who is held apart from the group both by her vocation as an Oracle and her role as observer, not quite a member of the group and too important to be left behind, lessened my attachment to her, but through her observations I deeply appreciated the other characters.

Gull was my biggest problem with the book, which is difficult because she’s the narrator. She’s a reliable narrator in that she’s not given to deluding herself, but I found myself losing patience with her, and with the story. Gull’s role as avatar for the Lady of the Dead means that she’s an oracle, and as such she’s telling the reader the story as she’s telling the other characters pieces of stories. It wasn’t until the last third that Gull took actions on her own that weren’t at the direction of the Lady, and I wished I’d seen more of the contrast between her own life and that of her office as the Lady’s oracle. I thought sometimes she was merely a window through which to view the story just as she was a voice for the Lady of the Dead, and with my experience with other books of historical fiction, I wanted to connect more with her than I could.

Deciding how to grade this book was a challenge, and I almost didn’t review it because it didn’t fit in the existing rubric of romance novel grades assigned in years prior. However, the book held my attention and even when it hurt to read I kept going, through images that twisted my heart and made me shudder. This story leaves an aftermath in the reader.

Graham tackles some huge subjects in this book, such as peace and war, as I’ve mentioned, and what happens when children become parents but still must answer to their own parents, or, as in the case of Neas, be a parent to a society while still growing up and having to grow up quickly. Graham’s writing style is spare – at times I felt like I was reading a novel meant for an elementary reading level for the simplicity of the dialogue – but the imagery left behind after the words is bleak, and meaningful. This book will definitely leave an impression. And it will make you appreciate peace when you have it, and hold it all the tighter for its fragility.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    This book was offered through the Early Reviewer program on Library Thing a couple of months ago.  I didn’t get it (I never get anything), but I have been looking forward to it showing up at a library near me.  One of them finally got it onto the shelf, so I’m planning on picking it up tomorrow.  I think the Aenead was my favorite class reading for my Latin B.A.

  2. 2
    Tamara says:


    The moment I saw this book, I knew I had to have it. It’s next on the TBR list.


  3. 3
    wryhag says:

    Sarah, I’m not connecting your grade with your comments, which were pretty damned laudatory.  Maybe I missed something.

  4. 4
    cendare says:

    @wryhag: It’s weird, I saw this review yesterday and I swear it said “A-” then.  It says “C+” now and I checked the comments just to see if anyone knew why.  Guess not.

  5. 5
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    I’m just keeping in mind that Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander was a C review, too.

  6. 6
    Marjorie Liu says:

    I loved this book.  Found it very moving, and entirely engrossing.  It was deeply historical, but in a very human way—which might sound odd, but I’ve read too many novels in which historical details overpower characterization, and this struck a perfect balance.

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    Hey folks: I don’t think I miscoded the review, but if the grade changed, I apologize. I meant to give it a C+, for the reasons I mentioned in the review, specifically the character of Gull.

    But also, this book is indeed powerfully moving, in that it ripped my heart out and handed it to me, and I’ve been asking myself all day if my grade is reflective of my own resentment for being so emotionally whupped by a book. I dislike talking about the end of a book in a review, but ultimately, I felt that the emotional twisting that was done to me as a reader was not justified by the ending and resolution of the story.

  8. 8


    I was so intrigued by your review I went to the library and checked it out. I devoured the book within two days and I absolutely loved it. It was great to sink my teeth into something meaty and wholly different from romance, which is usually my go-to for reading pleasure. I also picked up Sex With Kings and I have Sex With Queens on back order. I’m loving the change in reading material. I think it’s actually helped to fill the well in an odd way. So thanks!

    P.S. Love the new digs. Groovy.

  9. 9
    Nancy Beck says:

    I’ve been thinking of picking this up, but wanted to see more reviews; I’m still unsure if I’m going to get it, but I appreciate the detailed review.

  10. 10
    Uri says:

    Note to self: stop reading chick books.

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top