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Age of Bronze, Volume 3A: Betrayal, Part One
Written and Illustrated by Eric Shanower
I said a couple of weeks ago in What Are You Reading that I had mixed feelings about starting this book. On the one hand, I couldn’t have been more excited about visiting Shanower’s ancient Troy again. On the other, I knew that this would catch me up with the collections, giving me an impossibly long wait for the next one. Fortunately, the volume was enthralling enough to keep me from thinking about the lack of any additional Age of Bronze to follow immediately. At least while I was reading it.
Not that it’s without flaws. It feels sacrilegious to say after so thoroughly loving the first two volumes, but there were a couple of times in this one that I had a hard time connecting to what was going on in the story. Not because Shanower couldn’t find the emotional hook – he’s always brilliantly able to do that – but because I had a hard time figuring out the way a particular subplot supported the main story.
The biggest example of this is a long sequence about a king named Philoktetes who’s bitten by a snake during a sacrifice. It happens as the Greeks are camped on the island of Tenedos, their last stop before arriving at Troy. Over the next few days, as the poison begins to spread through the Philoktetes’ body, he’s in such pain that his screams and curses can be heard all over camp. It’s horribly distracting for High King Agamemnon and the rest of the army.
Shanower does a great job of putting the reader on edge as much as the other Greeks must be. Philoktetes’ cries are truly horrifying, partly because of what he’s saying about the gods who are letting him suffer, but mostly because of the tremendous pain he has to be experiencing to cause him to say these things. Shanower builds some great tension as we wonder what Agamemnon will do with the situation. He can’t just send Philoktetes home; the man took an oath to rescue Helen and Agamemnon’s got to let him try to honor it. On the other hand, he’s freaking the rest of the army out. Not only is it impossible to make plans with all the ranting – not to mention the stench of Philoktetes’ decaying leg – but they’re also concerned that his curses will bring down the wrath of the gods.
Clever Odysseus comes up with a solution that I won’t spoil, but once the matter’s dealt with it doesn’t seem to have any lasting repercussions on the story. It’s more like a curious interlude, inserted into the narrative not because it’s especially needed, but because Sophocles wrote a play about it and Shanower’s dedicated to including all of the Trojan War stories he could find. It’s the first time Shanower’s put in a tale that didn’t fit seamlessly into the overall narrative.
To be fair though, I can’t think of a way to include Philoktetes’ story that really supports the larger story. Given his task of including everything, Shanower does all that can be done to make it go together. And like I said, his presentation of it is powerful and interesting. I think that the biggest part of the problem is that – three volumes in – I’m getting anxious for the war to start and impatient about anything that delays it.
Some delays are totally worth it though, like the Greeks’ peace envoy to Troy. This is Shanower back at his best, giving us layers upon layers of characterization and political intrigue. No one thinks that the envoy is going to help the two nations avoid war, but everyone goes through the motions anyway. Shanower gives each participant a clearly defined reason for participating in the ritual and those motivations dictate how each person behaves during it. It’s a tense scene and even though I knew how it was going to have to end I still found myself hoping that somehow these guys might figure out how to send everyone home happy.
I came out of the scene with increased respect for Odysseus, greater admiration for Hector, deeper frustration with Priam, new pity for Menelaus, and a profound longing to see someone stab that bitch Paris right in the fucking mouth. In regards to that last, unusually strong reaction, I’m now more impatient than ever to get this war going and see Paris get what’s coming to him. It’s a testament to Shanower’s skill as an artist and a writer that I’ve gotten so caught up in these people. They are thoroughly real to me.
Okay, now I’m bummed about the lack of any additional Age of Bronze to read immediately.
Four out of five pissed off Odysseuses. Oddyssei? Stupid Latin…