Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

I have this strategy – I’ve mentioned it before – where when I really like an author, I save some of their books.  I haven’t read two (2) of Salman Rushdie’s books.  Martin Millar has written a number of books that I haven’t read, and I haven’t made the small effort it would take to order them used online.  This is not because of any shortage of love in my heart for Martin Millar’s books.  It’s because I’m saving them.  I do it with rereads too.  It’s been at least five years since I last read Persuasion, although (well, actually it’s because) I love Jane Austen, and I like to give myself a little treat every few years.

I haven’t read Mary Renault’s Theseus books in several years.  I haven’t read The Last of the Wine since high school.  And I have never ever read The Praise Singer, and until today I had never read The Mask of Apollo.  I read this book all over the place yesterday and today, and I did it at my parents’ house where (you may have heard) there is also a tiny little puppy who likes to snuggle on laps, chew on curtains, and wrestle with a stuffed koala bear.  Because The Mask of Apollo is so good it’s sick.

The book is about an Athenian actor, Nikeratos, who lives in Greece after the Peloponnesian War.  After a particularly magnificent performance as Apollo, he meets Dion of Syracuse as well as Dion’s close friend, the philosopher Plato.  Thereafter Niko becomes involved in Dion’s political intrigues as he (Dion, not Niko) works in Syracuse to establish the perfect philosopher-state as envisioned by Plato.  This doesn’t work out as fantastically well as you might think, though Mary Renault seems very definitely to think it could have gone better if Alexander the Great, rather than Dionysius II, had been in charge of Syracuse at the time.  (Alexander makes an appearance at the end of the book, and it was like seeing an old friend.  I love Mary Renault’s Alexander books, because nobody has ever loved a protagonist, and I am including Dorothy Sayers and Peter Wimsey, the way that Mary Renault loves her Alexander the Great.)

I’m a little sad that I’ve now read this book.  I’ve read it, and it’s read, and I can’t ever read it for the first time again.  I loved all the stuff about ancient Greek theatre – Niko speaks about how the actors interacted with each other, how the scenery worked, and the special effects, how the audiences responded.  Mary Renault writes beautiful characters, brave and flawed and frightened – you can see that she loves them, the ones she’s made up, but especially the ones she’s found in history.  I also now know a whole lot of things about Dionysius II that I never knew before.

A scene I like – I remember my mother showed me this scene when I was younger, long before I’d read any Mary Renault books in full.  Niko is not quite seven, playing little Astyanax in Euripides’s Women of Troy:

All I remember for certain is my swelling throat, and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.  My eyes were burning.  Terror was added to my grief.  I was going to wreck the play…Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running.  I hoped I might die, that the earth would open or the skene catch fire before I sobbed aloud.

The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted my gently.  I was gathered into the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above.  The flute, which had been moaning softly through the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder.  Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, “Be quiet, you little bastard.  You’re dead.”

I also loved how Niko casts everything in theatre terms.  It’s not obnoxious, though it could easily be – yes, we get it, Greek politics are like the theatre – but Niko is wry and a little detached, and it seems natural.  This I liked, when he’s speaking with one of Plato’s students, a woman called Axiothea:

“The philosopher is the pilot.  He knows where the harbor is, and the reef; he knows the constant stars.  But men still pursue illusions.  Their prejudice will not be broken till such a man takes the helm and shows them.  Once he has saved them from the rocks, that will be the end of guesswork.  No man will drown if he sees the remedy, will he?”

She paused for a feed-line, as philosophers do – just like comic actors, though one must not say so.

Other bits I liked:

“A man more precious than empires, both to us and to men still unborn, with who knows what wisdom yet undistilled in him.  He is clear of all misjudgement, except his faith in me.  He had not seen Syracuse for twenty years; Dionysos he had known only as a child who rode upon my shoulder.  For no living man but me would he have gone again to Sicily.  And I sent for him – for this very thing which has made and broken all: his charm that can make discourse beautiful and catch the soul through the heart.  Was Oidipos himself more blind?”


There’s always one more war to win, or one more election, before the good life; meantime they wrangle about the good, those who still believe in it.  So we dream.  Of what?  Some man sent by the gods, first to make us believe in something, if only in him, and then to lead us.  That is it.  We have dreamed a king.

I will now stop raving over Mary Renault.  I love her.  This book was wonderful and I love her.  Internet, read more Mary Renault!  I love her!  I am giving this book five shiny sparkly stars, and I feel like I want to go read every surviving ancient Greek play right now and imagine Niko playing the roles.