By Brenda Clough
On Mondays, football players watch videos of the games that were played on Sunday. Politicians have exit polls; theater people can go to the Lincoln Center archive and watch recordings of great Broadway productions. And writers? We are so happy and fortunate, because we can reread old books.
A good book will bear rereading. A great book will speak differently to the reader, at different points in life. Hamlet, read at age 20, is quite a different work than Hamlet read in your 40s. So in this occasional series we will reread books we once enjoyed, and report back. To kick it off, I am pleased to report that , thank God, yes! The King Must Die is still a superb novel!
I first picked up this book in the school library at Hong Kong International School, which apparently still reigns over Repulse Bay in Hong Kong. I was in fourth or fifth grade, so I feel sure I was not the audience that Mary Renault had in mind. (And only now do I wonder, what was this book doing there? You can bet it is not in an elementary school library today. It must have been donated by some adult expat shedding best-sellers before a move.) In my previous much smaller elementary school in Vientiane, Laos, I had contrived to read every book in the entire school library available for checkout (which excludes the encyclopaedias), and here in Hong Kong I was shaping to repeat the stunt.
What I recall now from that first reading was the sensation of falling deep, deep into a fictional world. It hooked me instantly, and to this day a really good book is a book I can fall into headfirst, a straight plunge into deep blue water. I think I understood perhaps two thirds of the historical stuff, and perhaps a quarter of all the relationships between the characters, but this didn’t slow me down a bit.
TodayI am reading it for the first time in a couple decades with a very different eye. What strikes me now is what a magnificent worldbuilder Renault is. In the first 20-odd pages she sets up Bronze Age Greece in all its glory: the patristic culture, the religious sacrifice both human and animal, and the personality and development of the boy Theseus, a world as alien to us as Barsoom or Tatooine. I can watch her shuffle and palm all the cards — here the child innocently proving his future hero status, there the undertone of Freud, over here the setup for conflicts to come. This is a total master at work. Any modern fantasy writer would be proud to set up an alien world so tightly and deftly; in comparison Tolkien is a turtle racing her hare.
And the history is perfect. It is said that even historians can read Renault’s historical novels, without aggravation. She must have kept up on every archaeological discovery and development right up until the novel went to press; the armor Theseus admires on his older uncles is the stuff we’ve seen in museum exhibits and in National Geographic spreads. Once I visited Crete, and the stupendous site at Knossos. I was delighted to see they’re still selling Mary Renault novels there, in all languages, in the tourist shops outside the gate.
The perfection extends right down to language and word choice; you will never find somebody saying “Okay” in a Renault novel. She was sufficiently anal about conveying Greekness that she went through and took out words of Latinate extraction, instead substituting Anglo-Saxon. This helps to create a true time-travel effect –you can believe you are not reading a novel written in 1958, but instead are actually hearing the words of a Bronze Age hero. If I could write like this I would die happy!
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Press.
I also have stories in Book View Cafe’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies.