A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about two young adult books drawing on Greek mythology, and I closed with the wish for something analogous for adults. And then, for Christmas, I got Marie Phillips’ Gods Behaving Badly.
Like the Ursu and Riordan books, the premise of this one is that the immortal Olympians are continuing their eternal existence in the 21st century. This time, they’re living in a crumbling and filthy townhouse in London (Phillips’ entrance to the Underworld is through the Angel Tube station). They are no longer all-powerful, though, and the necessity of conserving the power they still have leads to the spat that kicks off the plot. Artemis, angry at her brother Apollo when she finds that he’s wasted precious power turning a sexually uncooperative woman into a tree, makes him swear an oath by the Styx that he will not harm humans for ten years. Aphrodite’s punishment takes the more traditional form of striking him with unrequited love for a mortal woman, and events unfold from these two points.
The novel is fast-paced and funny (I read it in two sittings), with lots of throw-away references for those familiar with myth, as well as deft explanation for those who may not be. Phillips has clearly had a good time imagining what each of the gods would be up to in the 21st century: Artemis is a dog-walker; Aphrodite a phone-sex worker; Dionysus runs a hip night club, etc. While Artemis (goddess of chastity and the moon) is at loose ends in our world, Hermes (god of economics and escort of the dead to Hades) still has his hands full. And of course Ares is doing just fine. When Athena and Hera come to blows as part of the chain reaction of the plot, he rapidly steps in with a smile: “Ladies… Might I interest you in a small land war in Asia? Winner takes all.”
The novel is essentially a romantic comedy; the Washington Post reviewer described it as hovering “somewhere between Pride and Prejudice and an episode of Bewitched.” The climax and solution to the gods’ problems has a sort of trite obviousness to it. But along the way Phillips touches on larger and more interesting themes: conscience, immortality, death. The human couple whose lives are disrupted by the Olympians are both charming in their ordinariness. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing.
The same can’t exactly be said of the other classics-related book I read over vacation: The Lost Tomb by David Gibbins. This is an archaeological adventure (Dan Brown meets Indiana Jones, as the blurbs trumpet on the front of the book) about a lost scroll containing the writing of Jesus himself, conveyed from Jerusalem by the young (not yet Emperor) Claudius. Jack Howard, the dashing hero and marine archaeologist, vaults from one photogenic location to the next, making spectacular finds in each. The history and alternative history (Claudius has, in fact, faked his own poisoning so as to retire to Herculaneum where he can work on his scholarship until Vesuvius intervenes) are fine and actually quite interesting. I assume that the details about diving are as well, since the author is a marine archaeologist. I’m not an archaeologist myself, but I was somewhat skeptical about the notion that you could just find and unroll a 2000-year-old papyrus scroll (“’It’s still supple. There’s some kind of preservative on it, a waxy material.’ ‘Clever old Claudius’ Maria murmured.” This gives you a notion of the writing as well.). And no archaeologist I know would be so cavalier about snatching various precious objects from unexcavated sites, even if they were being chased by evil religious organizations. But hey, it’s fiction.
What actually bothered me most about the book was the clumsiness of the exposition: the requisite clueless sidekick is always conveniently asking about background. But I happen to know that Gibbins started out his writing career by purchasing an armload of paperbacks from the grocery store and absorbing their formula, so this is probably just part of a genre I’m not so used to reading. I decided after about twenty pages that I would assume he was making fun of these conventions, and then it bothered me a little less. I still found it something of a slog to get through, but it would probably be lots more fun if you liked Dan Brown and his ilk.
If you know of other classics-related fiction let us know – better still, send along your own reviews and we’ll happily post them!