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'Children of Tantalus'

Short Review of Grossack and Underwood's 'Children of Tantalus'


Victoria Grossack and Alice Underwood's most recent collaboration has produced a trilogy about the 'Children of Tantalus.' The first volume, Niobe and Pelops - Children of Tantalus, introduces Niobe and her more famous brother Pelops, whose shoulder the distracted goddess Demeter was said to have consumed while she was out of her mind with worry about her missing daughter, Persephone. Niobe and Pelops - Children of Tantalus also introduces a host of other popular mythological characters, including the titular Tantalus, one of the very few people from Greek mythology known best for the eternal torture suffered in the Underworld, as well as for an English verb based on his name. The second volume is Niobe and Amphion - The Road to Thebes, and the third, Niobe and Chloris - Arrows of Artemis.

3 Volumes and 2 Authors

The three volumes fold seamlessly into each other, although the authors provide enough of a refresher in each successive volume that someone who happened into the series mid-stream would not be lost, which might be comforting if someone started reading the second volume but failed to make it to its end more than 700 pages later. That reader could pick it up again in the third volume without confusion, although that reader would have missed part of the exciting tale. This smooth flow is one of the virtues of the series, which I think comes from having two writers intimately involved in the entire process.

A Glimpse of Greek Ancient History

The Children of Tantalus series, which the authors refer to as the Niobe series, retell important ancient Greek myths, verbally recreate the visuals of the ancient world, and explain the existence of institutions. It's easy to think of ancient Greek culture as being one homogeneous ancient Greek culture, but the authors depict the very different Greek world in the East where foreign cultures influence speech and dress, even though the basic myths and gods are the same. Readers of the series are on the ground floor of the development of panhellenic games like the Olympics and get to see how one or another local king came to assert his dominance, like Agamemnon in the Trojan War, over the others.

Re-Telling of Ancient Myth for a Modern Audience

The most amazing part of the series is how the authors retell the myths in such a way as to work for modern audiences. There's no inexplicable magic. We are not asked to believe that the gods sat down in Tantalus' dining room for a feast. Instead, we get to read a very plausible explanation. The king may have been crazy or maybe he did have a vision. No one knows. Our own religious preferences will surely color what we think here. Regardless of how the vision came to Tantalus -- by delusion or divine sign -- he didn't literally go into the kitchen and stick his grown son in the oven. No, he took a blade to him and killed him, offering a sacrifice to the gods. Instead of dying, though, his son Pelops had a near death experience. Since the gods weren't visually present for this symbolic repast, Demeter doesn't get to form a marble shoulder for him literally, but there is a marble shoulder, which is cleverly constructed and cleverly presented.

That's enough of a spoiler. There are lots of other myths and mythological personages you may never have realized were connected with one another.

The Bottom Line

The 'Children of Tantalus' series is definitely worth reading by fans of fiction and Greek mythology.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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