Black Ships – Jo Graham

Title: Black Ships
Author: Jo Graham
ISBN: 0316068004
Pages: 448
Release Date: March 10, 2008
Challenge: RYOB 2009, A to Z Challenge
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5

From the back cover:

The world is ending. One by one the mighty cities are falling, to earthquakes, to flood, to raiders on both land and sea.

In a time of war and doubt, Gull is an oracle. Daughter of a slave taken from fallen Troy, chosen at the age of seven to be the voice of the Lady of the Dead, it is her destiny to counsel kings.

When nine black ships appear, captained by an exiled Trojan prince, Gull must decide between the life she has been destined for and the most perilous adventure — to join the remnant of her mother’s people in their desperate flight. From the doomed bastions of the City of Pirates to the temples of Byblos, from the intrigues of the Egyptian court to the haunted caves beneath Mount Vesuvius, only Gull can guide Prince Aeneas on his quest, and only she can dare the gates of the Underworld itself to lead him to his destiny.

In the last shadowed days of the Age of Bronze, one woman dreams of the world beginning anew. This is her story.

Black Ships is a re-telling of The Aeneid, the epic poem by Virgil written in the 1st century BCE. In The Aeneid, Prince Aeneas, the last surviving member of the royal house of Troy, flees the city along with a handful of his people. After the sacking of Troy by the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War, they have no home left. They sail the seas, trying to find a home for themselves. It’s not necessary to be familiar with The Aeneid in order to appreciate Black Ships; the book stands on its own two feet.

The thing I found the most interesting about Black Ships was the fact that the author changed some events and details. For example, the first sacking of Troy by the Greeks didn’t lead to complete destruction; some survived and tried to rebuild the city. Then, a generation later, the Greeks returned in order to finish what they had started. (This book makes the Greeks look like bloodthirsty mongrels; but I suppose that’s no different than The Iliad). It is only after that second destruction of Troy that Aeneas takes flight from the city.

So, why does this matter? Well, Graham actually changed these details not to make the novel more exciting, but to bring the facts of the novel in line with archaeological discoveries. In the hill called Hisarlik, which many assume is Troy, there are two cities that were destroyed within a generation of each other. The first is a large, majestic city – the city of Priam and Hecuba. The second is more of a shantytown, built on top of the ruins of the first. I absolutely loved that Graham embellished facts and changed details, not to take liberties with history, but to make the novel more historically accurate. She has an afterword in the novel which takes the reader through the reasons for these changes.

I also loved the fact that, rather than making up a new character, Graham took a character already established in The Aeneid (the Sybil who guides Aeneas through the Underworld) and fleshed her out. And she did a wonderful job – Gull is a very sympathetic character, as are Aeneas, Xandros, and all the others present in Black Ships. Graham has a talent for character development.

Black Ships is a wonderful historical fiction novel. It is enjoyable, well-written, and easy to read. Graham’s next novel, Hand of Isis, is set in Egypt. I can’t wait to read it!


  1. wow a retelling of the aeneid! sounds good and I was already captivated by the cover

  2. Sounds very interesting. I’m not big on those old epic poems, but I might be willing to read a modern-day version. Great review!

    Diary of an Eccentric

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