The wait is over. A full year after the release of the rip-roaring penultimate entry in The Adventures of Odysseus, we are treated to the final leg of what has been a long and storied journey. Not least for author Glyn Iliffe, who can now look back on eighteen arduous and fruitful years, since he embarked on this monumental task of transporting the classic work of Homer to the 21st century. And as we have come to expect from him after five books, Iliffe acquits himself of the task with exceptional vigour and grace.
Return To Ithaca sees Odysseus stranded – both physically as well as psychologically – on a desert island, alone, save for the company of the goddess Calypso, who is withholding the knowledge that would grant her reluctant lover safe passage to his long lost home. Meanwhile, he has been separated from his lifelong friend and confidant Eperitus, claimed by the waves after the two friends fell out horribly over Odysseus ill-fated decision to disregard the will of the gods yet again – leading to the death of Eperitus’ wife and unborn child.
As a reader, their bitter estrangement, as well as their continued ignorance about the other’s fate, makes the journey so much harder – with their earlier levity and camaraderie sorely missed. While this does take a lot of heart out of the story in one way, following them as they face their separate ordeals in returning to their half-remembered lives – as well as getting to grips with the past – arguably makes for an even more engrossing reading experience.
My only potential misgiving about Return To Ithaca would be that it might suffer from a mild case of finalitis; the story is somewhat unduly burdened by the narrative weight that’s being placed on it by all the volumes leading up to it. Of course, the same could be said about many grand finales. Yet, there where instances where I felt we could have done without being reminded yet again of just how much the protagonists have gone through, how big the stakes actually are, and all they stand to lose should they fail. Especially through the first half of the book, the responsibility of bringing the series as a whole to a close slightly detracted from its strengths as a stand-alone novel, weighing down the pace, and dragging it out a bit more than necessary.
Then again, fear not; because Iliffe makes up for this in spades with his well-loved penchant for intensely personal storytelling. As with The Voyage Of Odysseus, it’s our genuine connection and investment in these living breathing people that fill the pages, which makes this book such an undeniable triumph. Combine this personal attachment with the inimitably visceral action that makes up the story’s nerve-shattering showdown, and you have the makings of an instant classic.
The major strong suit of Iliffe’s retelling is that even though the story has been with us for millennia, his original deviations, additional characters and challenging portrayal of the heroes’ psychology adds enough of an unkown quality to the proceedings – keeping us guessing at every turn. This works out well for the story, because as the chapters unwind to an uncertain conclusion, every confrontation and agonised decision feels crucial, dangerous and frantically suspenseful – even for those familiar with the legend.
In terms of cinematic quality, this is exactly what makes Iliffe succeed where Peter Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies flounders. For all of the marvellous and malicious that plagues our hero on his voyage, in the end it’s not about an ever more incredulous battle to save the world from destruction by some evil force; it’s about a mortal man taking on the slim odds of seeing his wife and son again, and setting out to restore the home he left a lifetime ago. It’s this sharply personal desperation and the sheer cruelty of fate that make the looming threat of death that much more menacing, and had me clinging on for dear life with every slash and parry our heroes have to mete out. Now this is action done right!
But it’s not just Odysseus we have to worry for. Taking centre stage now more than ever is the dramatic story of Penelope, our hero’s harangued wife and lover, as well as Telemachus, the downtrodden young man who has lived his whole life dreaming of a father he never knew. To see these two figures of Greek myth simply step out of the marble of legends as fully-formed and powerfully vulnerable people is a real treat; adding untold layers of depth to a story that already connects deeply with those who lived more than 3,000 years before us.
Again, Iliffe remains dedicated and faithful to Homer’s original material throughout, employing his own creative sense to make maximum use of what he has to work with. A big change compared to the previous novel is its strikingly enclosed setting. Instead of a wide open world of magical islands, Odysseus’ homecoming (spoilers, duh) involves shrinking down the adventure to the humble island of Ithaca. In fact, most of the story transpires within the dark main hall of the modest palace, a few surrounding rooms and courtyards, and Penelope’s own chamber. This actually worked out really well for the author; the intimate, contained setting lending itself beautifully for drama of very human proportions – already a strength of Iliffe. And when the final, prolonged showdown between Odysseus and the suitors of his beleaguered wife commences, Iliffe somehow succeeds in turning these closed quarters into the perfect location for a bloody, gut-wrenching frenzy of rage-fuelled retribution that would leave Quentin Tarentino squealing with glee.
With Return To Ithaca, Iliffe comes full circle, presenting his fans with a fitting and emotional conclusion to the journey of a lifetime, in a way few others could hope to match – both in terms of narrative and style. If you love an enthralling adventure with a strong heart beating within, you absolutely need to pick up this series.