I don’t often review books on my blog, but for this series I’ll make an exception. I just finished re-reading Wendy Orr’s wonderful series, set in Bronze Age Crete. It’s a children’s series, but there is a lot of richness for adults to appreciate too.
We follow three generations of girls growing up in a world where slavery, piracy and the fear of starvation are ever-present. Their struggle for survival is absolutely gripping, but what stayed with me is their quest for personal identity. The protagonists wrestle with the questions at the heart of a good coming-of-age story. Who am I? Where do I fit? The protagonists are excellent models of resilience and self-reliance within the context of a supportive community. Though they live in a harsh era, they never lose sight of humanity – I personally find something very reassuring about these books in a world currently gripped by a pandemic.
Orr’s depiction of life in the Bronze Age is packed with authentic detail, without ever losing sight of the characters. Readers are transported through the intricacies of the palace, as well as the hardships of life in the countryside, where wild beasts and raiders are a constant threat. The story masterfully blurs the lines between historical fiction and fantasy, with the viewpoint characters seeing signs of the goddess’ intervention throughout their lives. Orr seamlessly interweaves the narrative with a sense not only of the material culture, but also of nature. Our heroes live according to the rhythm of the seasons, aware of how precarious their existence is.
Alternating between prose and free verse, the language is lyrical and vibrant. It picks up the oral story-telling tradition so beloved of the Greeks, and makes it approachable for middle grade readers. Jumping between verse and prose might be a challenge for some kids, but advanced readers will find it rewarding. I particularly recommend the audiobooks, narrated by Roslyn Oades, if you’d like to experience this as a spoken adventure.
In Book One, Dragonfly Song, the queen’s daughter Aissa is abandoned as an infant. When her adopted family is killed in a pirate raid, Aissa is taken into the palace as a slave. Here she is unloved and unwelcome, shunned as a cursed child. Suffering trauma and unable to speak, she does not even know her name. When the foreign Bull King demands the palace send a boy and girl for his deadly games, Aissa must master her latent skill in charming animals if she is going to triumph. This is a clever interpretation of the myth of King Minos. Older readers might find it interesting to compare Dragonfly Song to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, which draws upon the same source.
In Swallow’s Dance, the Swallow Clan is devastated by the eruption of nearby Mount Thera. Trainee priestess Leira escapes along with her mother and aged nurse, forced to seek asylum among foreigners. With her mother incapacitated, Leira will do anything to find a place for her people—even toiling as a slave producing the purple murex dye. Through suffering, she will make her own fate by the skill of her hands and the strength of her heart.
In the final book, Cuckoo’s Flight, we follow Leira’s granddaughter Clio. Her talent lies in horse-rearing and the strange device new to her people—the chariot. With pirates coming to raid her clan, Clio fears she will be offered as a human sacrifice to win the goddess’s favour. Guided by a voice from the underworld, she must pass on her riding skills to her new friend Mika, an outsider and would-be horse thief, to save the town she loves. What I appreciate most about this book is that Clio has a disability, but that is not the sole defining trait of her character. Indeed, her story is not about ‘overcoming’ disability, it’s just a fact of life.
All in all, this is a great series that belongs next to Mary Renault and Madeline Miller on your shelf.
Until next time,