Odysseus: The Oath by Valerio Massimo Manfredi – Book Review


Odysseus UK CoverAs a self confessed lover of all things from the classical world, I had high hopes for this novel by one of the world’s leading classical civilisation professors. At college myself, I studied The Odyssey and fell in love with the Homeric world; of a man returning home from a long war and along the way felling mighty beasts, tackling the waves as well as surviving the meddlesome ways of the gods. Hearing that Manfredi, author of the Alexander trilogy which I loved, planned to tackle another retelling of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, but in first person, I was intrigued to say the least.

Odysseus: The Oath is the first in a two parter by Manfredi and pretty much covers the first half of the protagonist’s life. From childhood to his part in the Trojan war, the books reveals some of the more mysterious sides of Greek storytelling as well as bringing to life many of the characters that helped shaped Odysseus as a man, a husband, a warrior and importantly, the brains behind the Trojan Horse invention that ultimately won the war for the Greeks.

If you’re a fan of the ancient Greek world, then you’re bound to know the story of Troy, and of Odysseus in fact. But the story of his childhood may perhaps of slipped you by, which is why I was so interested in Manfredi’s version of events. Odysseus as a whole is an interesting character, one that is written with a lot of respect, knowledge and understanding. As the reader, you can’t help but feel inspired by the Greek prince, feel warm towards him. His morals are usually always benign and right for our own society, especially when compared to the many other plethora of Greek heroes and kings that are traditional, sexist and blood thirsty. The way in which Odysseus looks up to his father, Laertes as well as his mysterious grandfather, Autoloykos too is intriguing and makes a great read. The particular tale of hunting the boar is one of my favourite parts of the book.

Of course the book wouldn’t be complete without the introduction of well known character, both from the Greek myths as well as the Odyssey. Odysseus’s first meeting with his wife-to-be Penelope, Helen of Sparta (who the Trojan war is fought over), even Hercules gets a few mentions. In fact, I would go as far to say as the brief part where Odysseus learns the truth behind Hercules’s path to redemption was perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book. Manfredi has done a fabulous job at turning a well known myth on its head, rewriting it and reinventing it both at the same time, to a wonderful result in the end. Its poetic license is endearing as well as tragic. For Odysseus looks up to these warrior heroes; men like Hercules, Jason and Achilles, all who have tragic declines. Which I suppose makes Odysseus’s determination to become a man of brains more than brawn more admiring.

Both knowledgeable readers as well as people who have seen the film Troy, people will know that the Trojan war is fought because of Helen of Sparta’s betrayal of her husband and her re-alliance with Troy, through the young prince Paris. Yet, Manfredi through Odysseus questions the motives of many of the war’s legendary people and tries to see ulterior motives, because surely, a whole war that lasts a decade is not over one woman?

I think some readers who may not used to some of the bloodthirsty ways of that period Massimo manfredimay find some of the descriptions of decapitation, the raping of women,  as well as how a woman can be kidnapped as a slave one minute and then fall in love with their master another, a little graphic, horrific and unplausible at times.

But I’m afraid it has to be said that although there were many parts I enjoyed, there were also many parts I found a little off-putting. I actually found the majority of the book disjointed and didn’t flow very well. Especially the first half of the book, which seemed to pass by in years, but all in the space of a paragraph. This led it to be confusing at times, where I had to go back and reread bits to see if I accidentally skipped a page by mistake. Of course, you were always waiting for the bit where Manfredi gets to the Trojan war part, but when we get there, it becomes quite repetitive, action wise, with often reoccuring moments of the same thing over and over again.

In fact, if I’m honest, I found many parts of this book repetitive, just with different wording. I’m not sure if some of it may be down to problems in translation (which I’m led to believe is done by Manfredi’s wife). I remember the Odyssey being quite descriptive in parts, but in Manfredi’s author note at the end of the book, he explains that he tried to keep description down to a minimum to reflect the way in which Homer wrote the Odyssey. And you can tell. Odysseus is a clever and observant man, yet the lack of details sometimes, written in his first person perspective, is a little dull. Yet he so wonderfully gets into the mind of the man by having him continually questions every action and reaction. It’s an odd style of writing.

There is obviously more to come in the second and last part entitled Odysseus: The Return which I believe is due for release in the English language in the latter half of 2014. I found this however to be a little underwhelming, yet very readable. I don’t think it would appeal to readers who aren’t already a fan of the Greek myths, or indeed a introductory into the stories of the Classical world. The story is ultimately about the man who becomes a legend, and in all intents and purposes, Odysseus is a well told, well written protagonist. A man who is intelligent yet fair, ruthless with his ideas yet gentle and upholding. I’m afraid it’s the way in which the story is told that holds it back from being up there with some of his other stories. It doesn’t gel together well with a timeline that seems to go at an erratic and unpredictable speed. It’ll be interesting to see where Manfredi goes next.

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Odysseus: The Oath is available now in hardback from:

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Odysseus: The Oath is available now in eBook from:

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3 thoughts on “Odysseus: The Oath by Valerio Massimo Manfredi – Book Review

  1. Good review, Dan. I’ve always wanted to write an historic novel but haven’t had the chance yet. I love myths and legends (as you know) and I’m sure one day I’ll get around to it 😀

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