Book Review: People of the Sea

Most historical fiction revolves around well-known figures in well-documented times. People of the Sea breaks that mold, and several others, as it takes the reader along on a poetic journey during the Bronze Age collapse, also known as the Greek Dark Ages, in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. This is a tale of Deucalion and Pyrrha, Ariadne and Theseus, not the mythological characters but flesh-and-blood people fighting to save their way of life during a horribly tumultuous time.

We know very little, in terms of historical "hard evidence," about the Sea Peoples and the events that occurred during the few centuries that ended the Bronze Age in the Aegean, the Levant, and adjacent areas. Dempsey has taken that slim framework and filled in the blanks to create a deeply textured tale that tugs at the heartstrings one moment, and twists a dagger in that same heart the next. His choice of Deucalion, the Pelasgian version of Noah and Utnapishtim, as the sailor-trader who narrates this tale of upheaval and crisis, is more than appropriate. But it's a flood of a different sort, the backstabbings and abuses and opportunistic moves that accompany any time of collapse in human history, that he rides out in order to survive.

This is not a quick read or an easy one. Dempsey's style is poetic and dense and breathtakingly wide-ranging, as if Robert Graves had come back from the grave to write a Michener novel. Reading this book is hard work, and some prior knowledge of the history and mythology of the era is helpful, almost a must (either that, or plan to look up a lot of names and places). The author has taken quite a few liberties with the bits we do know about the timeline of the Bronze Age Mediterranean, but this isn't a history book. It's a mythic tale that speaks as much to archetypes and the nature of the human psyche as it does to a particular period of history. It's a story of how some people will always take advantage of the misfortunes of others. It's a story of survival and determination and undying love. If you ask me, those are things worth reading about.

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Copyright © 2020 by Laura Perry