Scroll down for Reviews and for an Excerpt from CHILDREN OF TANTALUS
Niobe & Pelops: CHILDREN OF TANTALUS is the first novel in the Niobe trilogy. Princess Niobe of Lydia is intelligent, unconventional, and determined to chart her own course in life – despite her parents’ wishes. Niobe’s brother Pelops, who narrowly escapes death at the hands of their father, Tantalus, is charismatic, ambitious and utterly ruthless. They decide to leave Lydia and head west to make their fortunes.
Pelops wants to rule an empire of his own, while Niobe is in search of something more elusive: happiness. Their quests take them to Pisa, a kingdom which Pelops, with Niobe’s support, will win through a thrilling chariot race. But Pelops is only able to complete his triumph by committing treachery – for which he will pay dearly, while Niobe discovers secrets that threaten her brother’s security on his throne.
Although Pelops, Niobe and Tantalus lived more than 3000 years ago, their influence is felt yet today. Greece’s Peloponnesian peninsula – the location of Olympia, Mycenae, and Sparta – is still named for the erstwhile king. The Olympic Games were founded to celebrate Pelops’ famous chariot ride. At the ruins of Olympia you can still see the site where they sacrificed to him.
Niobe is remembered in a rock on Mount Sipylus in today’s Turkey. There’s even an element named for her – niobium – and another named for her father, tantalum.
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Review of CHILDREN OF TANTALUS
TAPESTRY OF BRONZE SERIES: THE CHILDREN OF TANTALUS, THE ROAD TO THEBES, AND
THE ARROWS OF ARTEMIS
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Niobe and Pelops: Children of Tantalus by Victoria Grossack and Alice Underwood. 2011 edition.
As much as I enjoyed these authors’ previous collaboration Jocasta, I think this novel -- and indeed the entire Niobe trilogy as far as I’ve read -- marks some serious advancement in their storytelling art. One unintended advantage for me is that, like most readers, I am relatively unfamiliar with Niobe and Pelops in contrast with the Oedipus story. I do recognize peripheral characters such as Tereus, Procne, Philomela, Amphion and Tantalus (most of whom have creepy backstories that are likely to come into play as the trilogy progresses). And I presume Prince Laius of Thebes will become Oedipus’ father. But Niobe is a fresh discovery for this reader.
Grossack and Underwood confront a serious problem in writing about their heroine: the lack of female agency and empowerment in the ancient world. The novel begins with Niobe being denied one arranged marriage because of a bad omen and being set up for a worse one. Not a promising state of affairs.... But they have crafted a heroine able to survive in straitened conditions on pluck and luck (but apparently not beauty, at least according to her) . Uncannily, Niobe is not so different from a classic heroine in a Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte novel (which reminds us that the difference in women’s status between ancient Greece and the nineteenth century is less than that between the latter and the present!). So we root for Niobe as she flees Lydia, learns to swim and falls head over heels for the legendary musician Amphion.
The other characters are also very well-drawn. Pelops is an absolute trainwreck of ambition and impulse, while still a sympathetic character. Niobe's loyalty to him guarantees her many twists and turns of fortune that will keep the reader engrossed. The seasoned sea captain Aeolius represents the abundant homosocial / homosexual aspect of ancient Greek culture with his unfulfilled desire for Pelops. And King Tantalus is a suitably over-the-top megalomaniac. Against this cast, Niobe’s sense and sensibility shines through.
Another exceptional aspect of the novel is the close attention to the details of everyday life in this time and place. It’s all here: the “heated barley water,” the Tiresias oracle, the thrilling chariot races. The inclusion of a map helps us chart the course of these characters over this rugged terrain. The result is a world we can fully inhabit, as compelling as Tolkien’s but more rooted in actual history. The end result is a spellbinding entertainment which nonetheless reminds us -- in the spirit of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius -- that lust for power, and desire, have complicated lives long before our time.
-- Bob Mielke, Professor of English, Truman State University, The Copperfield Review
Or if you prefer to read his review over at The Copperfield Review, go here.
Excerpt from CHILDREN OF TANTALUS
“Niobe, do you see them yet?”
Niobe, princess of Lydia, left her loom and went to the east-facing window. The wooden sill was warm beneath her hands; a fresh autumn breeze wafted in. She leaned forward and gazed out over the flat-roofed houses clustered on the hillside below the palace, down toward the city’s eastern gate. Beyond the walls were scattered more modest homes, white specks dotting the newly-shorn barley fields; through these wound the broad road that led east to the land of the Hittites. But no crowds had turned out to cheer their returning prince, and no cloud of dust on the horizon signaled the approach of the traveling party.
“Not yet, Mother,” she said. “But it’s still early.”
At the beginning of the harvest season, they learned that Prince Pelops – one of Niobe’s two older brothers – was returning home after six years as a guest-hostage in the Hittite court. But the journey from Hattusas to Lydia was a long one, the better part of a month even for men in chariots; and the emperor’s letter had not said precisely when Pelops would set out. All through the harvest festivals the Lydian court wondered, whispered, speculated: how had Pelops, now a grown man of eighteen, changed? What tidings would he bring from the Hittite Emperor?
And most importantly for Niobe, was the Hittite crown prince – her betrothed since childhood – coming with Pelops?
Only last night a runner arrived with word to expect Pelops the following afternoon. Pelops, he reported, was accompanied by Ambassador Sadyattes, but not the Hittite prince. Niobe’s mother had warned her earlier not to expect Arnuwandas – it was customary for the bride to travel to her new husband’s home – but still, Pelops’ journey had offered an opportunity for her betrothed to visit Lydia, and accompany Niobe back to Hattusas.
Queen Dione sat down in the chair next to her loom, giving up any pretense of working. “This waiting is so difficult! What if something terrible happens to Pelops just before he comes home? I couldn’t bear it.”
Niobe returned to her loom and picked up a shuttle wound with white thread. Fleeting images assailed her: Pelops attacked by roving bandits, caught in a rockslide, bitten by a venomous snake. Perhaps the crown prince had set out with her brother after all, but had encountered some deadly mishap? She shook her head to dismiss such thoughts; instead, while she slipped the shuttle between the hanging warp threads, she searched for words that might reassure both her mother and herself. “Pelops isn’t a boy any more, Mother. And he’s traveling with the Hittite ambassador – isn’t he one of their best generals? They can take care of themselves – besides, they’ll have an armed escort.”
The queen shook her head. “I never wanted him to go in the first place. I’ve always feared that your father would do something to offend the Hittite Emperor, and forfeit your brother’s life.”
Niobe, too, had worried over Pelops’ safety: her father, King Tantalus of Lydia – brilliant, daring, and unpredictable – was often a thorn in the flesh of the great Hittite Empire. But sharing such fears with her mother brought neither of them greater peace of mind.
“Pelops hasn’t been executed,” she said. “He’s on his way home.” As usual, her best course was to change the subject. “Mother, you haven’t said anything about the tapestry I’m making.”
“I’m sorry, dear.” Dione rose from her chair and slid an arm around Niobe’s shoulders. “It’s a
clever pattern. The way the red threads alternate with the white – your shading is perfect. The flowers in the border here look just like real roses.” She went around the loom and inspected the other side. “And the reverse is lovely too. Beautiful work, my dear!”
Niobe smiled, basking in her mother’s praise. “Thank you, Mother.”
“Will you take this with you to Hattusas?” asked the queen, stepping back to survey the weave from a distance.
Niobe nodded. She knew that whether or not the Hittite prince was journeying west to meet her, she was the reason Pelops was being allowed to come home. Now that she had reached marriageable age, she would become the link that minimized trouble with the Lydian kingdom.
Dione sat back down heavily, and gestured for a servant to pour a cup of heated barley water. “I wish you weren’t going so far away.”
Niobe had heard this lament so often that it was like having more raindrops fall on her when she was already wet through. “It has been arranged for years,” she said, switching to the shuttle of red-dyed wool. “It’s a good alliance for Lydia.”
“You sound just like your father.” Dione cupped her hands around her steaming drink and took a cautious sip. “Well, I’ll do what I can to postpone it until spring. You’re young for marriage yet.”
The queen continued as though she had not heard. “And I don’t want you traveling with winter almost upon us. By Hera, it’s not much consolation to have one child returned, only to have another taken away!”
Niobe bit her lip as she resumed her weaving. How could she explain that she was looking forward to her marriage? Naturally she regretted leaving her mother, but the prospect of traveling to Hattusas stirred her: ever since childhood she had dreamed of faraway lands, her curiosity wakened by foreign visitors and traveling bards. And the long-standing engagement had always been a comfort when her ordinary looks were contrasted with sought-after Lydian beauties like the three daughters of the high priest Pandareus.
She watched with satisfaction as the cloth grew beneath her practiced hands. She did not need to be beautiful: she was the king’s daughter, and already promised to a powerful prince.
Her betrothal also excused her from giggling and gossiping with the other girls about which young man was the handsomest. Lately their chatter centered on Prince Broteas, Niobe’s eldest brother. Although his face was scarred by the childhood disease that had taken so many of Niobe’s siblings, the maidens agreed that his new beard did his looks a great service. Personally Niobe found some of the other young men far better-looking; but of course that was irrelevant. She was going to Hattusas.
Niobe wove in several more rows of thread, alternating the red-dyed with the white. After a while she paused to press the rows tightly upward with her battening stick. It was in truth a striking pattern, and the twining roses a lovely shade of pink.
“Child,” said her mother. “Could you look again?”
Niobe secured her shuttles and went back to the window. The breeze stirred her hair, and she brushed an errant strand from her face. She heard the heavy steps and rough-barked orders of her father’s soldiers in front of the palace, the men making ready for their mid-day change of guard.
Wait, there – was that movement, out past the vineyards in the distance?
She narrowed her eyes against the bright sunlight.
“Mother! I can see them!”
Pelops was coming home – and soon she would be leaving, and everything, everything was going to change.
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The Tapestry of Bronze is a series of interlocking novels set in ancient Greece, starting several generations before the Trojan War. Archaeological evidence indicates that this “Golden Age of Heroes” aligns with Bronze Age dates. Our series forms a tapestry, because the books tie together, though each novel focuses on one strand of story. Jocasta, Children of Tantalus, The Road to Thebes and Arrows of Artemis are available for purchase today. And more are in the works!
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