I wish I had had Dan Simmons as a teacher in 6th grade (he taught grade school in Colorado for 14 years and was, at one point, a finalist for Colorado’s Teacher of the Year). I have a feeling that he would have brought literature to life for an 11 year old dreamer – he sure brought the Iliad to life to a middle aged dreamer in his book, Ilium.
You don’t have to have read the Iliad to appreciate the role it plays in Ilium, but knowing Homer’s retelling of the actions surrounding the Trojan War allows you to realize just how deep Simmons’ knowledge is, and how effortlessly he spins that knowledge into a spectacular story that spans centuries and civilizations – and yet that’s just part of the tale. He takes modern day historical scholars who are actually observing/participating in a living, unfolding Trojan War taking place on Mars (yes, Mars) and interacting with Olympian gods (yes, you heard right), and folds in another story about the future of humans on Earth – a future where humans are both prominent and highly compromised. Oh, and then there’s the spaceship which sets off from Jupiter with four very different creatures manning it (one a sentient machine with a penchant for Shakespeare) that is derailed by (or perhaps sabotaged by) political maneuverings taking place light years away. Uh huh.
This book is certainly not trivial, and not a particularly easy read, although an immensely rewarding one. The three stories that Simmons undertakes in Ilium are very different, not only in setting and characters but in tone as well. The author asks a lot of his readers, to believe in events unfolding in three different manifestations of the science fiction/fantasy genre: historical fantasy, future fantasy, and space fantasy. Just when you being to get totally absorbed in one of the stories, the next turn of the page starts a new chapter where you have been thrown into another, picking up where it left off. The reader has to shrug off where they were and immediately pick up and submerge into the other, for the stories do not appear to be connected to each other with any common thread. But somehow, Simmons pulls this off, through his writing skill, and through the utter captivation we have with each of the stories individually.
Each one of the three sub-plots has well developed and captivating characters, but my favorite is Thomas Hockenberry – an unassuming, quite ordinary 21st century historian who has been “rebirthed” to observe the events in Martian Troy, and finds himself caught up in some very non-Homerian intrigue between the gods on Olympos Mons and the men that battle on the plains far below. Even with this highly imaginative scenario, Thomas Hockenberry never becomes some epic superhero (although he does ease into human hero), and the story never succumbs to convenient magic, which can be the bane of a good fantasy story. Everything unfolds believably, even in an unbelievable situation. You don’t even worry when the three stories will interact, but when they do, it is both surprising and very satisfying.
If you’re not afraid of a bit of a literary work-out (and you shouldn’t be – Simmons does most of the work for you), then by all means, snag this book. You’ll never think of the Trojan War the same again. Or Mars. Or, for that matter, Shakespeare. Or…. Well, you get the idea. Now, get the book!