BOOK REVIEW: The King Must Die by Mary Renault

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

“Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers. She does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.” —Hilary Mantel

In myth, Theseus was the slayer of the child-devouring Minotaur in Crete. What the founder-hero might have been in real life is another question, brilliantly explored in The King Must Die. Drawing on modern scholarship and archaeological findings at Knossos, Mary Renault’s Theseus is an utterly lifelike figure—a king of immense charisma, whose boundless strivings flow from strength and weakness—but also one steered by implacable prophecy.The story follows Theseus’s adventures from Troizen to Eleusis, where the death in the book’s title is to take place, and from Athens to Crete, where he learns to jump bulls and is named king of the victims. Richly imbued with the spirit of its time, this is a page-turner as well as a daring act of imagination.

Renault’s story of Theseus continues with the sequel The Bull from the Sea.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Mary Renault including rare images of the author.

My Thoughts:

I first read The King Must Die by Mary Renault as a teenager, and I remember being utterly transported to the world of ancient Greece in this story of the clever, arrogant Theseus and his quest to destroy the Minotaur. I love novels which draw on myth and folktale, and I am now working on a very different reworking of this ancient tale myself (mine is set in Crete in World War II, so it could not be more unlike.)


Mary Renault’s novel was first published in 1958, and it was hugely successful. She had had a few books published previously and in 1948 had won a MGM prize worth $150,000 (!) which allowed her to give up her day job as a nurse, move to South Africa with her partner, Julie Mullard, and write full-time.


It begins: ‘The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers.’ Theseus is just a boy – small but nimble, and said to have been fathered by a god. He sets out to find out the truth of this, a journey that makes him first a king, and then a slave and bull-leaper in Crete. It’s an extraordinary journey, filled with darkness and blood, war and lust, beauty and betrayal. Mary Renault is truly an astonishingly assured writer; one of those greats whose pace and verve and precision humbles and inspire me.



Another great review of a fairytale is:


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Kate Forsyth
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