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Belerion Odyssey, by William H. Russeth, is set in the aftermath of the Greek-Persian wars, in the fifth or fourth century BC. That conflict, however, is an incidental background to the story, which focuses on the lives of more ordinary seafarers doing their best to avoid being caught up in fights. Their desire, only ever partly fulfilled, is to acquire enough wealth to settle somewhere quiet, without provoking rulers and chieftains to exact revenge for their actions.
The story begins in rural Greece, in Spartan territory, and then winds westwards across the Mediterranean, brushing with various Greek, Carthaginian and other groups. Finally the trail in pursuit of the tin trade leads out into the Atlantic, to touch base in Cornwall (the Belerion of the title). A brief epilogue reassures you that at least some of the characters found peace in old age.
Each of the encounters in the Med and beyond is fraught with risk, and the assorted band of companions stagger from crisis to crisis. Rather like Odysseus, they lose friends and crewmates along the way, and consider themselves fortunate to survive each episode. Loyalty is important while fellow travellers are alive, but soon forgotten as bodies are left behind in the ship's wake. And so far as strangers go, trickery and double-dealing are necessary and well-used skills.
Something I felt that William captured particularly well was people's mindset. People are sceptical and practical, but also superstitious, and take as fact things which we call legend. The old heroic tales of mortals and gods are constantly used as reference in strange countries, but not assumed to be literal or unerring. These tales are their equivalent of scientific and historical knowledge, to be followed cautiously in a crisis. It makes for a very persuasive world.
I would have liked more time spent on the section outside the Straights of Gibraltar. Meetings with Iberian, Armorican and British groups seem to be rushed in comparison with the lavish detail given to Mediterranean groups in the first two thirds of the book. The short epilogue, set many years after the main story, highlighted in my mind the abruptness of the conclusion in northern Europe. The remnants of the group are left a long way from any possible home, and with a very difficult journey ahead. Maybe a sequel would be good?
On a technical note, the book was well-presented. The handful of typos or grammatical slips did not in the least spoil the experience. There were a couple of places where names of people or places were casually used without introduction, needing a bit of detective work to track down, but this was no hardship.
All in all, a lively and enjoyable read, threading neatly along the edges of established knowledge of the era.
© Richard Abbott
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