The Blurb (from Goodreads):
In the story of the great lyric poet Simonides, Mary Renault brings alive a time in Greece when tyrants kept an unsteady rule and poetry, music, and royal patronage combined to produce a flowering of the arts.
Born into a stern farming family on the island of Keos, Simonides escapes his harsh childhood through a lucky apprenticeship with a renowned Ionian singer. As they travel through 5th century B.C. Greece, Simonides learns not only how to play the kithara and compose poetry, but also how to navigate the shifting alliances surrounding his rich patrons. He is witness to the Persian invasion of Ionia, to the decadent reign of the Samian pirate king Polykrates, and to the fall of the Pisistratids in the Athenian court. Along the way, he encounters artists, statesmen, athletes, thinkers, and lovers, including the likes of Pythagoras and Aischylos. Using the singer’s unique perspective, Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable knowledge of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century.
This year, I have been reading a lot of books set in Ancient Greece and particularly loved Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, Madeine Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Widening my circle, I ordered another book by Mary Renault – The Praise Singer – because it had been recommended to me by a friend.
I enjoyed the book. It’s biographical fiction about a real-life poet named Simonides, who lived during the early classical period of Athens. We follow his journey from a wild and ugly boy, forced to work as a shepherd when all his soul yearns for music and poetry, to his life as an old man witnessing the end of the reign of the tyrant-king of Athens. Her writing is always vivid and vigorous, and the world of ancient Athens is well-drawn. I knew nothing about Simonides, or that particular period of history, and so I did find all the political machinations a bit of a drag. It meant the book did not have the narrative momentum of her Theseus books, and nor did it have the grandeur and mystery of the manifested presence of the old Greek gods in all their dreadful power.
Still, Mary Renault is a wonderful writer and so she manages to pull it off. I plan to read more of her work.