I could probably sit here and write a grad-school length essay about Dan Simmons’ Ilium, an aircraft carrier of a novel if I’ve ever seen one, but in the interest of your time and mine, I’m going to avoid describing the plot (which you could readily find anywhere, although I would argue that you are better served by NOT looking up the plot) and generally also avoid discussing literary themes. Instead I just want to tell you why this novel is pretty awesome.
First of all, Ilium is just plain bold and audacious, and on the strength of that boldness alone (which is to say: writing to adults, wrestling with history and literature, examining what makes men be men, makes women be women, and (to crib a line from Douglas Addams) makes little green men from Mars be little green men from Mars), I will give this novel five stars in my GoodReads review. Ilium has so much packed between its covers: the Greek Gods, the Trojan War, robots from Jupiter, the ethics of techno-resurrection, Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, sex and action and love and endless heartbreak, and somehow Simmons makes it all work!
In addition to sheer audacity, Simmons scores another win by blending the words of Shakespeare and Homer (and Marcel Proust of all people) into a science fiction novel that is set thousands of years in the future, and he makes those writers’ words not just some sort of thematic element, but entirely relevant to the plot at hand. Without giving too much away, any novel that features a giant, horseshoe-crab shaped robot who goes around quoting Proust deserves your rapt attention.
What I like best about Ilium, however, are our three very unlikely heroes (two relatively ordinary men and one humble, little robot). Simmons does a masterful and subtle job of getting us- the readers- on his heroes’ side without being cheap or resorting to sentimental, tug-at-your-heartstrings tactics. He shows wisdom and canny writing instincts by having specifically Ilium follow these three everyman types (even if one is an every-robot). Because the circumstances, structure, and secondary characters of the novel are often grand in scope, our three somewhat ordinary heroes become people with whom we can identify. In the same way that we can be entranced by watching a single bird make its way through a terrible lightning storm, Ilium benefits greatly by the scale of contrast, posing its ordinary protagonists against a background that is at once titanic and incredible, and Simmons really hits a sweet spot here. More than once, I actually pumped my fist in excitement as one of his heroes (usually his misplaced-in-time Homeric scholar, Thomas Hockenberry) manages to come through some incredible and dangerous circumstances.
I have already ordered the sequel, Olympos, from my library and looking forward to learning what happens next!
If this novel were an animal: It would be some titanic beast from Greek Mythology, like a lightning spitting Hydra. The Hydra, however, would be a big fan of classic books.
If this book were a drink: Red wine. Harvested and fermented on a sunkissed shore in the Mediterranean and then transported on sleek black ships to a land of gods and neverending war.
How to dress for this novel: Chest armor, grieves, and a sturdy helmet at at least. Probably not a bad idea to pick up a bronze shield as well.