REVIEW: The Sun’s Bride by Gillian Bradshaw
Current events and politics have not been terribly pleasant lately, and I’ve been turning to my favorite authors for comfort reads. One of those authors is you, a reliably brilliant and fluid storyteller who can bring antiquity to life the way no one else can. (For those of you unacquainted with Gillian Bradshaw’s works, she wrote the wonderful Render unto Caesar and Cleopatra’s Heir– reviewed by Jayne here— as well as her famous Hawk of May Arthurian trilogy.) Yet another one of my favorite books of yours is the more recent The Sun’s Bride, released by Severn House in 2008.
I usually avoid any seafaring fiction with a ten-foot pole, but here in Bride you write a rip-roaring tale of hunting pirates and crazy ship battles and ruthless royal intrigue in the Hellenistic era, in the 3rd century BC Mediterranean. The hero is the strong-willed, smart, proud, stubborn– and not to mention very poor– naval officer Isokrates, from the island Republic of Rhodes, known for policing the sea and protecting people from the scourge of pirates.
The story starts off with a bang when Isokrates and his ship the Atalanta come across a highjacked merchantman, with the Syrian king’s own mistress held hostage by the villainous pirate Andronikos. The king’s mistress manages to fling herself into the sea and swim for dear life, while the pirates and the Rhodian marines fight, ending with the pirates defeated and their ship smashed to smithereens; but Andronikos escapes, being the crafty sociopath that he is.
Isokrates then discovers that the king’s mistress is one Dionysia, a Milesian musician who ended up becoming King Seleukos’s girlfriend because the king took a fancy to her. Yet even though she doesn’t entirely hate him, she fled Syria because Seleukos (a la Henry VIII) is getting ready to divorce his wife, a powerful Hellenistic Egyptian princess, and remarry his scheming cousin Laodike, because he felt like it. (It is made clear that Seleukos is not the brightest bulb that ever shone.) This action would break the truce Syria had made with Egypt and plunge all of the Mediterranean into war, and Dionysia is desperate to avoid this.
But little does she know that Laodike has other plans, and has enlisted the help of the disgusting pirate Andronikos… and these two will stop at nothing to destroy Isokrates and Dionysia, as well as any chance for peace.
So there’s action! Adventure! Lots of barefoot chases and poisonings and royal ladies and their sycophants sneering and sword fights too. Not to mention naval battles galore. As in most of your books, romance—as Jayne put it– sneaks in sideways. I admit I love the “nice guys from the wrong side of the tracks” hero, and Isokrates fits this to a tee. The book goes into lovingly dismal detail about what it’s like to be poor and undernourished in ancient Greece, though Isokrates goes to a palace and is invited to several posh parties—and he does turn his finances around (when this happens, this is gratifying). Dionysia is very much an “uptown girl,” trying to turn her life and career around after being King Seleukos’s girlfriend and almost being killed by Andronikos. They are both nicely realized characters, and Isokrates’ character arc—where he goes from being isolated and depressed to happy and prosperous and with friends who appreciate him– is especially pleasing.
I still love your earlier works like Imperial Purple or The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, but I’ve noticed on reread there’s a lot of clunky exposition there that’s missing in your later works. (Also, I feel that your action has improved. Your later books have tons of great action in them, which is great.) My only issue with The Sun’s Bride is that I wish it could be twice its length… or that there was a sequel. Whenever your books end I feel a distinct sense of loss. Your characters always feel so real to me. There is no one who can capture the grit and reality of the ancient world like you can—with all its bad food, grumpy people, off-the-cuff poetry quotations and bureaucratic snafus– and yet make it feel so relatable at the same time.
There are so few books set in ancient Greece—the ones that aren’t far-out erotica with gods and such tend to be 300 style military epics, which just don’t interest me. Your books are also reliably filled with strong-willed and interesting women, with a deft consideration of the minutiae of everyday living. But while they’re filled with the stuff of everyday life, and your protagonists are everyday sorts of people, they always end up slipping and falling into worlds of adventure, with (figurative) gods and monsters around every corner. There’s something magical about it.
I know you’re taking a bit of a break right now, but I do hope we can see more books from you soon. The Sun’s Bride deserves a B+. Highly recommended!