Scroll down to read Reviews and then an Excerpt from The Road to Thebes
Niobe & Amphion: THE ROAD TO THEBES, is the second novel in the Niobe trilogy. Though Niobe loyally supported her brother Pelops through the difficult first years of his kingship, she rebels when he tries to arrange her betrothal to further his own ambitions. For Niobe has fallen in love with a Theban musician, Amphion, who possesses remarkable talent despite his lowly upbringing. And when the political machinations of Dirke – the ruthless wife of the Theban regent – lead to war, Niobe and Amphion take steps that will decide the future of Hellas.
Familiar characters return: Pelops, now king of Pisa and considered successful by all around him – yet feeling cursed because he has yet to atone for a murder he committed in Children of Tantalus. There’s Queen Hippodamia, his wife – jealous of everyone with influence over her husband – who has secrets of her own. We meet a young Laius, the future father of Oedipus. The Road to Thebes is full of distinct, exciting characters drawn to fates they cannot escape.
A rich, long book, and our not-so-secret favorite.
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Our Books (in English)
TAPESTRY OF BRONZE SERIES: THE CHILDREN OF TANTALUS, THE ROAD TO THEBES, AND
THE ARROWS OF ARTEMIS
To read it again at the original website go here.
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Review of The Road to Thebes and Arrows of Artemis, Victoria Grossack and Alice Underwood.
The last two novels of the Niobe trilogy (and prequel to Jocasta) will not disappoint those who began the journey with Children of Tantalus. By the end of the third book, my classical knowledge kicked in and led me to exclaim: "Oh, THAT Niobe!" When I did some digging, I was amazed to find how accurate their retelling is with regard to the details of the mythology / legend. There really was a charioteer named Myrtilus that Pelops had a fateful encounter with, for example.
Grossack and Underwood's basic strategy is to naturalize the mythic claims with empirical explanations. I won't give away a big example (THE big example), but I can tell you that they turn the legend of Amphion building the walls of Thebes with his music into a more logical narrative -- which then gets spun into the myth by oral transmission. And, as noted in my previous reviews of their work, they add highly plausible psychological motivations and backstories to enrich the rather two-dimensional flat characters of the bare-bones original versions. Which is not to disparage the original telling: clearly some of these depths were implicit in the original tales. But Grossack and Underwood thoroughly develop what is only there potentially. The result is a crackling good read that Hollywood could do worse than try to film. (I already have a casting suggestion for Chloris!)
It's all here in the Tapestry of Bronze series: romance, sex, suspense, violence, mystery, the machinations of the gods. After reading these books, you will want to visit rural Greece -- or at least go to your nearest Greek restaurant and enjoy some retsina and feta! These books truly bring the past to life in a believable and compelling manner.
-- Bob Mielke, Professor of English at Truman State University, The Copperfield Review.
Or if you prefer to read his review over at The Copperfield Review, go here.
Excerpt from Road to Thebes
In the palace at Thebes, Dirke, wife to Regent Lycus, surveyed the megaron. As the well-born guests of the court seated themselves on comfortable benches to await the evening’s entertainment, her gaze skipped past the noble ladies in their flounced skirts and instead rested on each of the men in turn. Among the Spartoi, Thebes’ ruling class, there were battle-scarred veterans and young men with their beards just starting; there were lean, long-legged fellows who excelled in the footrace, and squat, sturdy wrestlers. A few talked almost as much as her husband Lycus, while others had scarcely uttered a grunt in years.
Which of them should she choose to father her child?
It was an old problem, and not one that she was likely to solve this evening. Yet the matter was growing more urgent. Her month’s blood had come again, another precious moon cycle wasted – and her fortieth birthday was not far away. If she was ever to produce a child, she needed to do it soon.
She looked at Lycus’ empty chair, wondering how long he would take with his chamber-pot this time. Over the course of the last year her husband had needed to pass water ever more frequently, and yet he found it increasingly difficult to do so. He often excused himself in the middle of an important meeting, and always he slipped away right after dinner, before the entertainment began. The blood in his urine was a more recent development.
During more than twenty years of marriage Lycus had not fathered a babe on her, nor on any other woman. The healers of Apollo told her that a man suffering from his current condition would never again know the pleasures of Eros. To get a child, she needed someone else.
Regrettably, few of the Theban noblemen were more appealing than her husband. Now, the late King Labdacus – he had been a handsome creature, if hopeless as a leader.
Beside her, the eight-year-old prince slouched in his chair. “Laius, sit up straight,” Dirke snapped.
The boy squirmed into an upright position. “Lady Dirke, when can I sit over there?” He pointed to the empty thrones, which were draped with simple woven cloths.
With an effort, Dirke kept her voice even and kind. One never knew who was listening. “You’re too young still, dear,” she said.
“But I’m the son of Labdacus,” said the prince. “I’m a descendant of Cadmus, who founded Thebes.”
Dirke smiled to hide her annoyance. “That’s right, Laius. I’m glad you’re finally paying attention to your lessons.” Who had been filling the boy’s head with these things? Of course it was no secret that Laius was heir to the throne, but the young prince rarely thought beyond his next wrestling lesson. “You can only sit on the throne when you’re ready to take on the responsibilities of kingship. That means a lot of work: you’d have to speak with envoys of distant cities, monitor the sowing of the fields in spring and the harvest in autumn, listen to your people’s grievances and judge them fairly. You wouldn’t be able to spend your afternoons wrestling and throwing knucklebones. Are you ready for all of that, Prince Laius?”
The boy frowned and kicked his feet against the legs of his chair. “No,” he admitted.
“I didn’t think so. Laius, a king’s most important responsibility is to make good decisions for his people. Your father made bad decisions: he started that war with Athens despite my husband’s good advice. Remember what happened to your father?”
Prince Laius blanched. Years ago he had witnessed his father’s death at the hands of an angry mob. Only chance and the Thebans’ pity had spared the boy from suffering the same fate. Unfortunately, thought Dirke – it was worse for Thebes that the prince had survived. The boy was too much like his father: he would never be fit to rule. He was a handsome child, but not a clever one. More than that, even as eight-year-olds went, Laius had no discipline. He preferred athletics to study of history or languages, but he applied himself no better on the exercise-ground than in the classroom. His wrestling instructor tried time and again to impress upon the boy that a lighter, weaker opponent might win through cleverness and strategy, but Laius could not be bothered to learn these methods properly, because that meant practice, and practice was boring. Then when he lost, he bawled like a baby. He had other failings, too…
What a waste! With all the city’s resources, Thebes should be a leader in Hellas – and yet it was only a second-rate power. They had Prince Laius’ father and his misbegotten war to thank for that. After Labdacus’ death, when Lycus resumed the regency, it was necessary to placate Athens with a costly annual tribute, further draining the city’s wealth. And what sort of future could they look forward to? Prince Laius was very much his father’s son; when he assumed the throne, he surely would do as much damage as his father had. Or more.
Dirke drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. She had the vision and ambition to make Thebes magnificent, worthy of the fabled city in far-off Aegypt for which it was named. But instead the city was cursed with incapable kings – and Laius boded no better for the future. If only she had more authority! If only she could give Thebes a clever child – her child – to rule after her!
But this child did not exist, except in her dreams and prayers.
“You look thoughtful, my dear.”
Dirke looked up at the sound of Lycus’ voice. “Just waiting for you, Husband,” she said, smiling at him as he eased his thick body into his seat: the elegant and comfortably cushioned chair that was not and would never be a throne.
Lycus had served as regent during King Labdacus’ youth, and now again ruled on behalf of Prince Laius – all in all, more than twenty years as regent. But he had never tried to claim the throne for himself. Lycus was hard-working and had been a competent soldier in his day; after listening to his advisers, including Dirke, he made sound decisions – he had brought the city through times of hunger, war, and disease. Since the disastrous war with Athens, he had restored much of the city’s confidence, recruiting and training new soldiers. The people respected him. If he was not king, he had only himself to blame. It would have been simple to maneuver the Thebans into giving him the throne he deserved, yet this he had always refused to do.
He was the real problem. When she married him all those years ago, despite all obstacles, she had snared Thebes’ most important man: yet here she was now with no child, no throne, and her fertility slipping away. She should be queen of Thebes; instead she was only the regent’s wife, a position without even a proper title.
Lycus adjusted his belt, grimacing. Dirke leaned over and asked in a half-whisper: “How was it?”
“Still painful.” He shifted in his seat. “But only a little blood this time.”
Dirke did not share the hope she heard in her husband’s voice. Still painful, as though he would soon recover! Only a little blood in this urine this time, as though a little blood didn’t matter! The fact was, her husband was in his late fifties and quickly turning into a weak old man.
In contrast Dirke was healthy and active; flatterers told her that she looked as young as any maid. Of course, they exaggerated: the reflection that looked back at her from the polished silver of her mirror could not be mistaken for a girl twenty years younger. But ten years, certainly. Her figure remained slender and girlish; her breasts were still high and firm; she gilded the nipples and wore them bare in the warm months. Dirke plucked out the few gray strands which appeared in her hair before even her maidservants could see them. Yes, she was still beautiful; she was still young; her monthly courses were still regular: surely she could have a child!
But not with Lycus. If he had ever been capable of fathering a child – and over the years Dirke learned to doubt this – he was not now. Well, though her childlessness was Lycus’ fault, she must take the blame for not doing more about it earlier. There had been visiting kings and princes, now and then, who had made their desire for her obvious; she should have accepted their advances, taken care to get with child by one of them. Instead she kept hoping that Lycus’ seed would do the trick. Her own foolishness!
“Such a serious face,” Lycus said. “Are you plotting something interesting?”
Hastily she composed her features and sought a subject that would serve. In a low voice she answered, “Now that spring is coming, the hills will be covered with red clover. I’ll have some gathered. An infusion might help your condition.”
He smiled and took her hand in his. “You’re a good wife, my dear.”
“I try to be,” she said, allowing him to kiss her fingers.
Red clover could be used to treat a man suffering from her husband’s health problems; for women it had other uses. Though dangerous for pregnant women, it often helped those who wanted to conceive. Yes, she would acquire a supply of red clover. And make sacrifices to Hera, goddess of marriage. That much was easy. The difficult thing was to find a man to give her a child, a kingly child.
Her hand still resting in her husband’s, Dirke looked around the megaron once more. A group of noblemen huddled together, speaking in low tones – but still she could overhear enough to guess they were complaining about the tribute to Athens. Well, she thought irritably, they knew as well as she that it was the price for peace. Another man seemed to cast a glance her way, but then his wife snapped something at him and he turned back to placate her. Dear Hera, thought Dirke. None of these men could sire the leader Thebes needed. So much for the nobility! Should she cast her net lower? There was Chabrias, one of the guards, who had made it plain that he would serve her, no matter what she asked – he was capable, strong, healthy, but so unattractive…
“Shall we have a song?” suggested Lycus, once more scattering her thoughts.
“Yes!” said Prince Laius. “About the war between Zeus and the giants!”
“Laius, we’ve heard that so often,” said Dirke. “I’d prefer something different.” She raised her voice and addressed the court musician directly. “Amphion, do you have anything new to share with us?”
Amphion rose from his seat and bowed gracefully. “Yes, my lady: a piece about Deucalion and the flood, if that would please you.”
“An interesting theme,” said Lycus. “Let us hear it, Amphion.”
The young man lifted his lyre and inclined his head for a moment; his dark curls shone in the light of the fire that burned in the central hearth. When the crowd was completely silent, he plucked his first chord.
In days long past, he sang, the king of the gods grew weary of men’s wicked ways, and sent a deluge to destroy them. But the titan Prometheus, that friend of mankind, could not bear to let humanity perish. Defying Zeus, he warned his mortal son Deucalion of the flood.
In a frail vessel, afloat on the swirling seas, Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha escaped the wrath of mighty Zeus; they watched in horror and despair as men, women, and children sank beneath the waves. Raging waters silenced their helpless screams. The ocean covered the earth; sea creatures swam in confusion above the treetops. At last the clouds parted, and dolphins pushed their vessel toward the only remaining dry land: the top of Mount Parnassus. The couple staggered forth and knelt on the rocky ground, weeping in gratitude that they had been spared.
The chords of the lyre grew softer, sending a shiver down Dirke’s neck; Amphion’s voice assumed a melancholy tone.
For when the waters finally ebbed, Deucalion and Pyrrha realized there were no other people. At first they had shed tears of gratitude; now they wept from loneliness and despair. Finally the gods took pity, and told the couple to gather the bones of Mother Earth and throw them over their shoulders. Each gathered a pile of stones; when Deucalion tossed one behind him, a man appeared, and when Pyrrha did the same, the stone was transformed into a woman. Thus was the rage of Zeus satisfied, and the race of men born anew.
The final notes echoed through the room and fell silent. Dirke was the first to speak. “That was wonderful, Amphion.” She discovered that her throat had grown tight, her eyes moist.
The musician inclined his head. “Thank you, my lady.”
“Absolutely splendid!” declared Regent Lycus, starting a round of applause. “Where’s my cupbearer? There he is – you, pour Amphion a goblet of our finest!”
“I still want to hear the song about the giants,” said Prince Laius, slouching in his chair.
“Later, Laius,” said Dirke. “Let the musician catch his breath.” The boy had no poetry in his soul! The traditional song of the war between the Olympians and the giants was simple and repetitive, whereas the ballad Amphion had just sung was a truly divine creation. And it seemed to have been designed expressly for her: just as Deucalion and Pyrrha had brought forth a new race of people, she would bring forth a new line of kings for Thebes.
Perhaps the gods were speaking to her through this musician!
As the wine was poured around, discussion in the megaron turned to the subject of cattle. Thebes’ herds were its greatest wealth, and Dirke knew she should listen to learn how the birthing season was proceeding – but instead she watched the musician from beneath lowered lashes. She had noticed his music years ago, but had always dismissed the man himself as a peasant. Yet he was taller and better-looking than any of the Theban noblemen. The strong curves of his muscles, gained during his time working the herds, were as well-formed as any soldier’s. Clearly he was intelligent – it took a keen intellect as well as an artist’s heart to create such a composition.
An old nobleman, responsible for the cattle-census, turned to Amphion with a question about the calving process; Dirke listened to the musician’s clear, concise answer. The Master of the Herds drew Amphion further into the conversation, listening to the erstwhile herdsman with nearly as much respect as if he were one of the Spartoi.
Dirke ran a finger along the arm of her chair. Was Amphion the answer to her prayers?
Seducing him should be simple. She had won over Lycus, the most powerful man in Thebes, when she was only a girl. Since then she had learned how susceptible men were to the attentions of a woman with charm, beauty, and power. Yes, Amphion was young – early twenties, she guessed – but that only meant that he was more naïve, more susceptible to Eros’ snares, and more capable of begetting a healthy child.
No, the difficulty was what to do about him afterwards. He could not be allowed to claim the child as his: that would upset all her plans. How could she keep him silent? She could not trust that his loyalty to Thebes would be sufficient cause. She could bribe him, or have him exiled. An untimely accident would be surest – yet it would be a pity to have him killed. If not for his lowly birth, what an asset he would be! And once a man was dead, he was gone forever.
First things first, though: he needed to get her with child. And since her flow had just started, the time for that was still half a month away.
“My lord Lycus,” boomed the herald from his place by the door. Conversation fell silent. The herald bowed low, then continued. “A messenger from King Pelops of Pisa, my lord regent.”
Pisa was many days’ journey away, and Thebes had no particular relationship with that city. What, Dirke wondered, could King Pelops want from them? She remembered seeing Pelops in Athens a few years ago, before he became king of Pisa. There had been some sort of scandal, something causing him to be banished from Athens. Why would a foe of Athens send a messenger to one of Athens’ allies? She was not the only one wondering, for a buzz of speculation filled the room.
“Let him enter,” said Regent Lycus.
The Pisatan messenger, a wiry young man with a sailor’s tan and sun-bleached streaks in his brown hair, came forward and bowed awkwardly. “My lord regent,” he said. “My name’s Naukles. I’ve got two messages for you from King Pelops of Pisa.”
“Yes, yes, my good man,” Lycus said. “But first, have we seen to your needs? Let it not be said that Thebes is remiss in its hospitality!”
“I’m fine, my lord. My feet were washed and my belly filled. And your wine’s good, too!”
Lycus smiled. “The vineyards of Thebes are unsurpassed! Dionysus himself favored our wines, you know. Some say that Chian wine is better, but I find that even that worthy vintage—”
Dirke touched her husband’s arm. “Lycus,” she said softly, “let’s hear his messages.”
Lycus patted her hand. “Of course, of course, my dear.” He turned back to the messenger. “Well?”
Naukles took a deep breath. “King Pelops’ first message is this,” he began, then continued carefully, as if
reciting a speech memorized word for word, “he invites you and your court to attend a marvelous festival in Pisa at the solstice, to celebrate the dedication of his new temple to Hermes. The rulers of all the great cities will be invited, my lord; King Pelops wishes to share his hospitality and good fortune with all of Hellas.”
“Hermes, eh?” Lycus scratched at his beard. “That is not the god I would have expected him to honor first.”
“My lord, King Pelops honors many gods,” said Naukles. “But Hermes, as the god of messengers and travelers—”
“—and thieves,” added Dirke. Now she remembered the scandal: Pelops had been accused of stealing from his own father, King Tantalus.
“Hermes protected Pelops in his travels and so King Pelops seeks to honor the god, my lady,” the messenger said.
Lycus nodded. “You describe a worthy gathering, my good man. But the journey from Thebes to Pisa is a long one, necessitating travel both overland and by sea.”
With his increasing infirmities, Dirke’s husband disliked the inconveniences and discomforts of travel. Moreover, he would be reluctant to offend King Pandion of Athens, who might still bear ill will towards Pelops. But such an event might provide many opportunities...
“Husband,” she said, “the festival sounds glorious. It would be a shame to miss it.”
“We will consider it, then,” Lycus told the courier, which Dirke knew meant that the two of them would discuss it in private. “And, Naukles, what is the second message from King Pelops?”
“King Pelops knows that one of the best musicians in all of Hellas is to be found at Thebes, and he requests your leave for this artist to perform at the festival. His name is Amphion.”
“Amphion!” Dirke realized that, without meaning to, she had spoken aloud. Well, in any event, it was time to start laying the groundwork for her plans. She smiled warmly at the musician. “Congratulations to you!” She paused, sweeping her gaze over his well-formed physique. “It seems your services are greatly desired.”
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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