** spoiler alert **
A interesting re-imagining of the lead-up to the Trojan War, almost a complete alternate universe at points. I wish it had been labeled as such rather than "Historical Fiction" because Gemmell deviated from commonly-held "facts" quite often, sometimes seemingly for its own sake (i.e., Paris' & Helen's physical descriptions.) I eventually came to terms with my initial disappointment, but in the end I didn't find it an absorbing read. It had way more potential than it actually delivered.
The main character is the uninteresting Helikaon, sort of a mash-up between Aeneas & Achilles in valor and temperament. He's a driven man of contradictions, vengeful one moment and spouting mission statements of diversity/gender equity workshops the next. Such sentiments were clunky and phrased with too modern a tone.
Andromache here is a beautiful swan who thinks she's an ugly duck, accomplished in seducing women and handing advanced archery weaponry. She speaks her mind to powerful kings and is a walking anachronism. There was little in her characterization that was surprising once I got a sense of the author's sentiment and aims. For all her powers, mental and physical, she wasn't interesting at all and seemed to be more of a fantasy heroine than anything rooted in the ancient world. Her and Helikaon's immediate attraction had no depth, but simply was a device that yarned the gods into it and seemed to make it a matter of destiny that required no discussion or attention. Things happen, people are. Let's move on to the next scene.
Which seemed to be the problem for most of the book. The characters, with the exception of Odysseus (a fail-proof character), and Laodike and Argurios, were flat and dull. They appeared a lot and even said a lot, but I only saw them as names who spoke words and moved. There was no engaging internal activity, no brain- and soul-digging, no spark that made me care about them.
What "insight" there was consisted of the repetitious -- and eventually boring -- device of flashbacks within scenes whenever a character saw or said something that prompted a memory. It didn't even have to be important for Gemmell to slip into another paragraph or 3 of pluperfect. For example, the Mykene mercenary Argurios polishes his armor for a feast, sees the missing discs on it, and recalls the battle where the damage occurred. There is no new information to be gained by this past perfect trot down memory lane. The reader has already been informed often and at great length by a dozen characters what a great and fearless warrior he is. The only reason we're told is that later he's wounded due to the absence of those discs. Quite important detail, and I think it might have been more memorable, but Gemmell's style is to line up the mechanical pieces and plow through them with pedestrian prose. It's like moving chess pieces with a checkers brain.
I'd say 95% of the book has a style that's simplistic like woah. Only a couple passages with Laodike & Queen Halysia prompted me to re-read them because they were so evocative of their inner turmoil (a rare occurrence elsewhere with other characters). Both women weren't the fantastically gifted warrior priestess/princess that Andromache was, and hence seemed more realistic and accessible.
There are several flagged "Aha!" moments of dual identities revealed where we discover that two different characters are actually one and the same, but after the first (Helikaon's assassin/stalker), the second (the Egyptian fugitive) and the third (Trojan prince traitor) seem like a dull repeat of the same ploy and further plot twists could be seen miles in advance.
In the end, there was too much I found impossible to ignore and "just enjoy it" for what it was - alternate history/fantasy marketed as historical fiction. Gemmell seemed too intent on reinventing some characters for newness's sake, going to the extent of having Paris be stoop-shouldered (!), bookish (!!) and balding (!!!), as well has having Helen be thickset, plain and unremarkable. Come on! If an author is going to reinvent the wheel in terms of Paris and Helen, then utilize them sensibly since so much of the action took place in Troy anyway. By dropping these new images for a brief glimpse but no commitment, it came across as a cheap trick.
After all this, why still 2 stars? Well, Gemmell's Odysseus is very in-character with the new twist of The Odyssey being an anthology of his fireside tales, although having so many parts of The Odyssey referred to in this manner got as repetitive as the pluperfect flashbacks. I enjoyed the meshing of Hector's battle exploits with the Hittite-Egyptian Battle of Kadesh, along with the political and martial relationship between Troy and the Hittite empire. (The utter absence of Hector until the very end (where he rides to the sudden rescue in blah fantasy genre style) was disappointing, however.
Overall, I've read far far better novels about the ancient world, and probably don't have "suitable" appreciation for his style because I'm not that into the fantasy genre, but at least I know what to expect and am prepared to be underwhelmed by the next two books. I've already started Shield of Thunder and guessed immediately that "Piria" is actually Kalliope, Andromache's ex-lover, and The Odyssey tale-dropping has shown up again on a few occasions. So the repetition continues.....