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“You mean the Greek gods are here? Like…in America?”

“Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West.”

“The what?”

“Come now, Percy. What you call ‘Western Civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years.”

I grew up on Robert Graves‘ translations of Greek mythology. Heracles was a pre-modern superhero, Theseus a tragic hero whose cleverness and bravery could only get him so far, Odysseus proof that intelligence could give a hero the edge when faced with a physically stronger opponent. I enjoyed the morals these stories seemed to contain, alongside fantastical descriptions of minotaurs, gorgons and cyclopses.

Of course later, when I returned to these texts, or read different translations, I realized something – those ancient Greeks were jerks!

Unfortunately Percy Jackson has yet to learn this lesson. An ordinary boy growing up in New York with an unusual habit of getting expelled from schools – he swears that it is never his fault – as well as suffering from dyslexia and ADHD, life has dealt him a pretty poor hand. When he discovers he is also the illegitimate son of the god Poseidon and targeted for assasination by both Hades and Zeus, as part of a growing Olympian civil war, well, it is just not fair really.

Being the son of a god has some advantages though. He gets to escape to the safety of Camp Half-Blood for one, where the marauding furies and minotaurs on his trail are held at bay. What’s more he discovers he has several abilities related to the control of water, which could even help him survive a frontal attack by a monster.

He’ll need every trick to stay alive when he and two friends leave the camp on a quest to discover who has stolen the thunder bolt of Zeus and framed him for it to boot. So it is time for a road trip to the Land of the Dead – Los Angeles.

While Rick Riordan is said to have completed the manuscript in 1994, but it was not actually published until 2005. It  therefore does seem likely that segments of the book were rewritten to suit the Pottermania fad. Camp Half-Blood is a Hogwarts filled with the abandoned off-spring of gods and yes Percy is yet another child of destiny.

Where I found the story sticking in my craw a bit was the translation of Greek myth to American culture. I accept that this is the conceit of the book – as the quote featured above states, America is now the ‘seat’, of Western civilization – but it leads to some uncomfortable moments. For example Medusa is described disguised as a Middle Eastern woman. Hades is said to resemble “the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers.”

Really Riordan? You went there huh? What’s more, much like the tarnished Greek heroes of my youth, Percy is actually quite a bloodthirsty little punk. I get that his life is at stake, but after the second, or third decapitation I started checking the book for a parental advisory sticker. Through in spouse abuse – his mother has endured a horrible relationship for years, in order to keep Percy hidden – and this becomes an uncomfortable, sickly feeling cynical package.

This is one fantasy series I will not be continuing with.

Just as he was about to shut the window, he caught sight of a group of people charging up the street. Three women leading five or six men. They were half-naked and running like maniacs, but the main thing was, they were blue. Really blue blue, like zombies in a cheesy horror movie. It was sick. Their mouths were wide open, and their eyes were black and bugging out of their heads.

Ok lets just stop for a moment. Have you seen the name of the author in this post’s title? Walter Greatshell? What an awesome name! I picked up the book just so I could claim to have read something by a writer with that name.

Now the title itself was a cause for concern. Yes the marauding undead creatures in this book are referred to as ‘Xombies’, but then I did enjoy Charlie Huston‘s vampire series, with its own attendant neologism – vampyres. Then there’s ‘Apocalypticon’ – it sounds like a bargain bin video game. But I put these concerns aside for you, dear blog reader, for I felt the need to bring you word of Walter Greatshell.

Of course I quickly realized this is actually the second in a series of novels. The background to the plot is quickly established in the opening chapters. An engineered virus named Agent X has swept the world (hence ‘X’ombies) and human civilization is in ruins. Sal DeLuca is one of a dwindling number of civilian refugees aboard a submarine approaching the East Coast of the United States. His father died trying to make sure his son was given safe passage on board, but now the teenager has new problems. With the vessel’s commander isolated by a mutinous crew, the ‘non-essential’, passengers, mostly adolescent boys like Sal, are rounded up and sent ashore to forage for food. If they survive they will have proved themselves useful.

There are no women on board the submarine, apart from the sinister scientist Alice Langhorne. She was involved with the experimentations that led to the creation of Agent X. She worked with its creator, Uri Miska, even helped cover up the initial outbreak of the contagion, which was originally intended as an elixir dispensed by the Mogul Cooperative to those that could afford it. Eternal life and rule over the entire world. It all went wrong though and an experimental version of the serum got loose, targeting women and transforming them through a process of asphyxiation into undead Xombies. Alice Langhorne has another ace up her sleeve though, the sole remaining leverage left to her. An intelligent Xombie, the blue-skinned girl known as Lulu, who can command and pacify the marauding hordes on land. Through her Alice might even find a cure for the contagion, that is if she is truly interested in saving what remains of the human race.

This book is quite unusual. I really had a hard time making my mind up about it at first. It begins with a flashback to the beginnings of the outbreak, a useful introduction for those who had not read Xombies: Apocalypse Blues. Greatshell describes an odd scene of prison convicts playing poker in the middle of a rodeo, for the entertainment of locals. Then all hell breaks loose as blue-skinned teenage girls begin assaulting and choking the people in the audience. What am I reading, I thought to myself? Is this some kind of misogynist tract?

Perhaps on the surface it seems that way, but Greatshell has broader ambitions. There are references to Greek myth throughout – female Xombies are referred to as Harpies, or Maenads at times – and the terrified men on board the submarine quickly turn mutinous, attacking one another instead of focusing on survival. There’s a scene with Langhorne and a senior military officer were he notes she is taller than him, older than him and possesses more natural authority than him. I am not sure whether the novel’s themes are a reaction against sexism, or appealing to an outright fear of women. Either way it’s an interesting counterpoint to the macho canon of militaristic sf/horror.

Yes the prose is quite purplish at times and the quotations from a supposed official account of the Xombie epidemic that open the early chapters lack that clarity of language that made Max BrooksWorld War Z so convincing. Still I can’t help but admire the book for doing something interesting with zombie tropes.

A most curious horror novel.

What could I do? Lamentation wouldn’t bring my lovely girls back to life. I bit my tongue. It’s a wonder I had any tongue left, so frequently had I bitten it over the years.

The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of the hero’s long suffering wife Penelope. Left on the island kingdom of Ithaca to fend for herself while her husband contends with a Cyclops, vengeful gods and witches, Penelope tells of her efforts to confound the many suitors who seek to usurp Odysseus during his ten year voyage. This, after having already waited ten years for the costly Trojan War, fought to secure the return of her stunningly beautiful cousin Helen, to end.

This is also the story of Penelope’s twelve maids and their murder by Telemachus and Odysseus upon his return. The myth describes them as having caroused with the suitors besieging the palace of Ithaca, indirectly making them responsible for the long hours of cavorting and rutting within its halls. Penelope reveals that her maids were in fact spying on the men, delaying their attempts to kill her son Telemachus and forcibly marry her, seizing her husband’s kingdom in the process. The ‘carousing’, the maids died for was in fact rape.

All of this is narrated by the long dead Penelope, now a spectre wandering through Hades. She has been observing the progress of human history and has developed over time a certain arch sense of humour, picking up a few idiomatic phrases over the years. I was startled to see this figure from Ancient Greek myth use the word ‘factoid’ just three sentences in, but there you are. This is Atwood using the character of Penelope as her mouthpiece, with The Penelopiad intended as a corrective to the chauvinism of Homer’s epic.

By having the narration itself take place in the present day, Atwood mocks the pretensions of Homer’s characters, all of whom are still wandering around the underworld. She jokes that the gods have vanished ever since a much more spectacular establishment down the road – fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks – a great many special effects opened up. Penelope herself never really believed in the gods, as all she observed in her life was random misfortune and callous violence.

Her life was spent in a state of passivity, a quality that is lauded within Homer’s tale, her patience and forgiveness of her husband’s indiscretions elevated as virtues. Atwood reverses this by showing how Odysseus won her hand and took her to Ithaca as his bride in order to weaken her father in any future conflict between Sparta and its neighbours. That she could always see through her husband’s lies and omissions, but chose not to speak up as she knew he enjoyed fooling everyone. In fact, most of her dignified silences from Homer’s epic are retold by Atwood as Penelope furiously trying to repress her laughter at the foolishness of people around her.

Three women rule Penelope’s life. Her mother-in-law, Anticleia, is stern and unloving, treating her son’s wife at all times as a necessary inconvenience. Eurycleia, the palace wet-nurse, replaces her as mother to her own son Telemachus. And finally there is Helen, her cousin, who ruined her life, having ignited the conflict that took her husband away for twenty years and set in motion the events that would lead to the occupation of her home and the murder of the twelve maids. Atwood uses these three women to represent the clichéd archetypes of female identity in mythology – the matriarch, the crone and the whore. By doing so she exports any of these traits from Penelope herself. However, I’m not sure what character her heroine actually possesses, beyond the arch present-day voice we are offered in the narration, as Atwood-manqué. I feel this is an error on the author’s part, as Penelope is reduced to a mere cipher as a result.

There is anger here, with the twelve maids acting as a chorus throughout the book. They speak in verse initially, but later resort to a parody of a mock-feminist academic paper and even a ‘video-trial’ in the style of Judge Judy. Overall I feel the story should have been told solely from their point of view, as Penelope’s sheltered upbringing and passivity made her an aloof narrator (never mind a sarcastic ghost).

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