Over the Wine-Dark Sea by H.N. Turteltaub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the second time I’ve read this book, the first time being nearly 20 years ago when it first came out. A few key bits had stuck with me, like Menedemos’ womanizing and a battle at sea. But after 20 years, most of the details had faded, so it was almost like reading it anew.
As a history geek, I found it a lot of fun to read historical fiction that isn’t set in one of the traditional time periods like Victorian England or Napolean’s Reign. The two characters also make great foils for each other, impulsive Menedemos and his philosopher/wannabe-historian cousin Sostratos. While it’s obviously a work of fiction, it was neat to see what things are the same about humans no matter how far back you go (haggling, superstitions, balancing desire with prudence) while other things are so different (how they viewed meals, technology, gender relations).
Perhaps obviously, since the main characters are sea traders and the majority of the book takes place during the trading season, it’s structured almost as a series of episodes, each taking place in a new city. There isn’t a truly overarching plot and it’s both metaphorically and literally about the journey, not the destination(s). The biggest narrative momentum comes from Sostratos’ character growth, but even that is relatively minimal.
Overall, I think it’s a pretty fun read, particularly if you’re interested in ancient Greece.
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