I don’t entirely know what to say about this book because I both liked it and didn’t like it. It’s a sequel to Lyon’s The Golden Mean, but also stands alone. The main character is Aristotle’s daughter Pythias, or Pytho, a bright and unconventional girl in a world that has no place for such a woman. That makes it sound like a very predictable sort of book but it’s really not. It’s beautifully written, and, as in The Golden Mean, while the language is often strikingly modern, the characters, their worldviews and the society they inhabit is believably ancient.
Aristotle dies partway through the book, and Pythias is left to cope, try to run her household, and find her own destiny in a world where a fatherless, unmarried teenaged girl needs to find a protector as soon as possible. From that point on, the book takes some odd twists and turns, as Pythias experiments with being a priestess, a courtesan, possibly a midwife — to be honest I was a bit confused by this point. She finally hooks up with the guy she’s been attracted to for most of her life, but it’s not exactly a satisfying experience, and she almost hooks up with a guy who may or may not be a god … and then she gets married. She also learns that it’s very hard to keep the slaves in line without a man’s authority.
I think somewhere partway through this novel — which I read right after Ken Follett’s The Winter of the World — I finally figured out the difference between commercial and literary fiction. The difference lies in how much the writer trusts the reader. I’m often frustrated by how very commercial writers like Follett spell everything out for you and allow no subtlety. But sometimes I flounder when reading books that are extremely literary, like this one, because too much is left for me to figure out, and I need the writer to fill in a few more blanks for me. To be honest, I did not understand the ending of this book at all. It was beautiful, but way too subtle for me. If you asked me how it ended, I would not be able to tell you for sure.
This is not, in any way, an indictment of Annabel Lyon’s writing, which is beautiful. It’s more an indictment of me as a reader, that I couldn’t keep up with her. If you like historical fiction that’s very literary, and especially if you liked The Golden Mean, I would still highly recommend this book. It just didn’t connect with me as much as I hoped it would because I had trouble seeing the plot amidst all the lovely language.