Olympos

by Dan Simmons

Cover image

Series: Ilium #2
Publisher: Eos
Copyright: 2005
ISBN: 0-380-97894-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 690

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Olympos is a direct sequel to Ilium and could be considered the second half of one large book. While there's enough recap to get one re-oriented, Olympos isn't very readable in isolation.

The opening part of the book picks up with the Trojan War, now being fought on new terms, and opens from the viewpoints of Trojans and Achaeans. For me, that made for a slow and somewhat tedious start. I found that part of Ilium the least compelling. Readers of the same opinion are in for several chapters of slog at the start of Olympos. Thankfully, this doesn't last long after Hockenberry takes center stage again; that's the cue for the book to move away from the tedium of individual heroes to divine melodrama mixed with the moravec mission. Unlike the regular switching in Ilium, Olympos stays with those merged threads through the first part of the book.

Part two reintroduces the future Earth contingent, and there too things are slow at first. While the battles are tense, they're also a bit repetitive and very dark, and between battles there's a bit too much navel-gazing. Simmons cuts back to the moravecs or the gods at times, which helps, but it's not until part three and the second half of the book that the action and revelations really start and Olympos found its feet for me.

This is, of course, the payoff book: the one where all the threads meet, where we finally find out what's going on. The explanation in isolation is a bit unsatisfying, but the way in which it's revealed is thoroughly enjoyable. As with Ilium, my favorite parts of the book are Simmons's soaring descriptions of Earth artifacts, which are even grander and more memorable in Olympos. My favorite characters are the moravecs, particularly Orphu of Io, who gets the (very well-handled) opportunity to explain much of the world background. The last half of the book is a tense and satisfying cascade of revelation, desperate struggle, and highly amusing divine melodrama. Simmons's handling of Achilles here is the best he does with a Trojan War hero throughout the series. He embraces the humor of Achilles's full-speed-forward, impatient style and utter disrepect for the gods, which provides some useful lightening of a mood that in places is fairly horrific.

Less successful is the big bad villain of the piece. This being Simmons, it's unsurprising that he draws on horror tropes for the villain, but the Lovecraftian direction he takes it doesn't entirely work. Partly that's the physical appearance of the dark creature everyone ends up fighting, which for me missed horror and landed on absurdly comic. I also thought the motivation of the villain was insufficiently complex, lacking either Lovecraftian unknowability or a level of sophistication that holds up to the science fiction component of the story. The voynix end up being much better villains (albeit with one very serious issue; see below).

Another complaint that I need to mention is that the second half of this book features a deeply uncomfortable and disturbing quasi-rape scene. It's clearly intended to be deeply uncomfortable and disturbing, and the characters react to it as such, but it achieves that by starting with old and problematic symbols of sexism and exploitation. Simmons does a bit to reverse and invert this in the fallout afterwards, but reading the scene still left me feeling dirty and uncomfortable, and not in a way that added to my enjoyment of the book.

The last major complaint I had concerns the voynix, or rather their finally-explained origin. Since this was one of the major mysteries of Ilium (and turned out to weave into several other mysteries), I had high hopes. Unfortunately, when the explanation came, it felt phoned in. Simmons took a superficial and completely stereotyped seed from modern politics, extrapolated forward in an unimaginative and borderline-offensive way, and arrived at some highly implausible world-building. He used a nasty and highly complicated conflict as what to me felt like a cheap plot escape hole, and frankly I expected better.

But, problems aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Olympos. Hockenberry becomes a much more interesting character, the characters I liked before remain interesting, nearly all of the future Earth denizens redeem themselves and become full participants in the plot, and the set pieces and artifact descriptions remain top notch. All the threads of the story come together satisfyingly, even if some of the history is best forgotten, and Simmons knows when and how to attach an extended dénouement after the climax. I could have done with a bit less horror and more exploration of the forgotten monuments of future Earth, but I still thought Olympos confirms this series as one worth reading. I'd heard that it was weaker than Ilium; after reading it, I think it's the stronger book.

If you enjoyed Ilium, particularly if you liked the moravecs and the picture of future Earth, do continue on to Olympos. Simmons delivers more of the same on an even grander scale and provides a satisfying explanation for nearly all of the mysteries set up in the first book.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-09-21

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21