Classically Inclined

March 4, 2014

Book review: Shadow of the Minotaur – Alan Gibbons

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 8:17 am
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During my big trawl for books that were retelling the Minotaur myth in the context of London, I was pointed towards Shadow of the Minotaur. I didn’t get my hands on it in time for the deadlines I was working towards, which actually is just as well – it’s located not in London, but Brownleigh, somewhere whose main characteristic is very pointedly not being London. However, it’s an interesting addition to my thoughts about how myth and place and space interact, particularly as the Minotaur seems to be a myth which offers a lot of scope for that kind of interpretative engagement.

Shadow is the first in The Legendeer trilogy, and while I haven’t read the second and third books, I think I can see where we’re going. From a literary point of view, I have to say that Shadow isn’t particularly thrilling – it’s fairly standard Young Adult ‘young man coming to terms with his identity and this whole growing up thing and how he feels about his parents and adolescence and not fitting in and STUFF’, which is all good standard material and themes, but I don’t think the writing is strong enough to make it have an appeal beyond its target audience. However, from the classical reception point of view, Gibbons does a very interesting thing. He makes the entry-point into the world of myth a computer game, which turns out to not actually be a game, but a world existing in parallel to our own which has come under the control of the Gamesmaster.

The conceit that drives the plot is that Phoenix, our hero, has been dragged to live in Brownleigh very much against his will, and is hating it. Hence the emphasis on this town being the antithesis of London – but the reason that his family have transplanted to Brownleigh is that his father has been headhunted to work on Legendeer, a new immersive kind of computer game in which players will become the Greek heroes and defeat the famous monsters whom we know so well. The only thing that’s keeping Phoenix going is that he’s play-testing this game for his father – but, as the play-testing goes on, it becomes more and more clear that the game is actually dangerous. Not least because people start being physically sucked out of ‘our’ world and into the parallel world the more advanced that the game gets. Did I mention the malevolent Gamesmaster, whose basic goal is to take over our world completely?

So, two really interesting things here from the classical reception perspective. First, the connection with the labyrinth and the inside world of computers. This isn’t entirely new – in one of the Canongate Myth Series, The Helmet of Horror, Victor Pelevin sets the Minotaur story in a chatroom style environment, with a very experimental writing style that takes advantage of the form and the concept in which the myth is reworked. Shadow is a very conventional kind of narrative, but I’m intrigued about the idea of the labyrinth as computer-generated. Part of the appeal of the ‘game’ is that it feels so authentic and real – and throughout his time in it, Phoenix is ratcheting up points on his points bracelet, so the ‘game’ concept and structure continues to be the way in which he must negotiate his way around the world, first in the persona of Perseus and then of Theseus. His enemies are constantly trying to fiddle the rules of the game to catch him out, but he can do the same to them – it’s a bit of a variation on the ‘question the rules and distrust authority’ message a lot of YA works with, but in context it works really well. So does the fact that Phoenix’ knowledge of myth helps him work out what he has to do in order ‘win’ each level and get through the story.

Which brings me to the second interesting thing, which is about Phoenix himself. We have got used to our protagonists in this sort of genre having some form of weakness or infirmity in the real world which translates to a ‘heroic’ quality – see Percy Jackson’s dyslexia actually being his eyes trying to read ancient Greek and rebelling against English. Phoenix is ‘the Legendeer’ – but that isn’t quite the same as being ‘a hero’, or at least the same as Theseus or Perseus. He adopts both skins and confidently performs the role of ‘hero’ without becoming a specific one within the game world. Within the real world, he suffers from dreadful headaches – which, as his Greek mother reveals, he shares with an uncle who conveniently nobody ever has talked about, not least because he was shut away into an asylum because he claimed to be communicating with another world. Phoenix slowly comes to realise that his uncle was talking to the inhabitants of the parallel Greek world, and so things start falling into place. Yet the heritage of Greek myth is very closely woven into his ancestry, something which is part of him no less than the ability to be the Legendeer.

That close connection to the stories without actually being a demi-god vel sim seems to be a bit unusual compared to the usual pattern of YA stories in which the protagonists finds himself in possession of a hitherto unrealised characteristic. Percy Jackson is a demi-god; George in Stoneheart (of which more anon) discovers he is a ‘maker’; Beatrice in Divergent discovers she’s – well, divergent. All of these groups have memberships of more than one. In Shadow, there’s no hint that there’s any other Legendeer knocking about the place, or that there is ever more than one at a time. While other people from Phoenix’s world get drawn into the game, they are characterised as not-the-hero – in the process of getting them into the game, Phoenix nominates people to play his heroine, villain and an incidental character, but their role is always subservient to his. Rather than a new identity shared with a distinct group, perhaps an isolated hero fits better into a world focused on a single-player computer game narrative?

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