“The King Must Die” by Mary Renault

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Perhaps my first mistake in reading this book was not knowing in advance that it was written with the fantastical elements removed. I think Theseus had made it to Crete before I was thinking “…..what’s all this bull dancing about? Where’s the Minotaur?”

The first part of the novel until Theseus makes it to Athens was pretty dull. He manages to end up shacked up with an “Earthling” queen (by the end of the book I still hadn’t worked out what an Earthling is – is it the same as a Minyan? Someone help) whom he treats abominably, and then proceeds to run about with his new posse until he decides to finally get off his backside and go meet his father in Athens.

We have a briefly interesting respite with the appearance of Medea (she doesn’t disappear in a chariot pulled by dragons though, booooo) before Theseus is volunteering himself to go off to Crete.

The whole bull dancing thing was a total snoozefest but things picked up somewhat towards the climax and the finale on Naxos is suitably bonkers.

It’s clearly a well written book but I struggled with the general misogyny and awfulness of Theseus as a main character. He is deeply unhappy with women even having the smallest amount of agency and the book hammers home ‘women having power = bad’ just too much to enjoy. Ariadne was mildly interesting but grounding the narrative in more historical fact just didn’t work for me. Some of the language was beautiful, but impenetrable, and I found myself reading some parts thinking “bwuh?”

This book took me over a month to slog through and despite everything it left me thinking “hmmm, maybe I’ll read the sequel…”. I guess I’d say it was frustrating, often mind numbing yet strangely compelling. I managed to love it and hate it at the same time.

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