The Double Axe by Philip Womack

double axe

Philip Womack takes the ancient myth of King Minos and the Minotaur and retells it with a teenage protagonist in his latest book, The Double Axe. He adds exciting political intrigue and mystery to the royal court; and blood and gore and fantastical creatures worthy of a time of hunting and war, when science hadn’t quite revealed all the mysteries of the universe.

Research conducted by the OUP (Oxford University Press) and published this week reveals that 93 per cent of the teachers they surveyed in primary schools said it is important that children have access to classic stories. Talking to writers and reading many children’s books, it’s not surprising to find that so much of our contemporary literature either contains threads and fragments of classic tales, or consists of whole stories reshaped and updated into contemporary settings. Fairy tales subtly haunt Katherine Rundell’s latest book, The Wolf Wilder, David Almond’s award-winning A Song for Ella Grey retells the Orpheus story, albeit with modern twists, and Mal Peet famously borrowed Othello from Shakespeare for his award-winning novel Exposure. The best writers know their classic stories.

Philip Womack introduces The Double Axe by explaining that he is stretching out his myth like a tapestry – indeed the beauty of using a classical myth as a basis for a modern story is that the myths retain plasticity and so can be manipulated in the retelling. Myths were what remained for the Ancient Greeks about their early history. Thucydides wrote that Minos had a fleet of ships – the first king to have such an armada, and yet made no mention of the Minotaur, preferring to stick to history with no mention of gods. In rewriting the story of King Minos and the Minotaur, an author can revisit Ovid, or Catullus, or study Ancient Greek art, or architecture. The ruins of Minos’ palace at Knossos are apparently like a labyrinth themselves – something that Philip Womack draws on in his retelling. Interestingly though, Womack takes us on a very different journey – whereas most readers would expect that any retelling of the Minotaur myth would lead with the protagonist as Theseus, Womack splits off to a different tangent – and so the intrigue starts from the first page.

Thirteen year old Stephan, prince at the court of King Minos, finds himself heir when his older brother is killed. But when his father leaves to avenge his son’s death, Stephan is left in a palace that swarms with rumours and political machinations: the engineer Daedalus is keeping secrets in the basement, a strange and powerful priestess is prophesying unusual portents and carrying out unusual practices, and Stephan wonders if someone within the court is betraying his family to Athens. With his sister, Ariadne, Stephan works to find out what is going on – and how he can save his family and his father’s kingdom.

Although told from a teenage sensibility with a fairly modern voice and therefore sounding a resonance for a modern teen reader, there is plenty in here that still speaks to mythology and fantasy, with constant awareness that this is set in Ancient Greek times. The lavish descriptions of the palace and the food impart a distinctive smell and sense of place, rooted in an ancient time with lush olives and roasting meats, a sea breeze across the island, and hunts in woodlands.

Yet, as for any teenager, there is the struggle to have independence (and for this Stephan is granted a view to his future as the heir to the throne), and yet a teen’s pull to the family as a safe retreat. Being a teenager is about recognising the threats to family from the outside, but also coming to terms with the fact that the family itself may not be the safe haven one imagined it – parents aren’t infallible.

Womack does this cleverly with his weaving of the ancient myths – from the doubts over the queen’s fidelity (did she mate with a bull to create a minotaur?), the threat of conflict from Athens, and most importantly with Stephan’s siblings. His feisty sister, Ariadne, is a constant companion and fellow fighter, who guides him through the labyrinth of the palace as well as through the web of intrigue. His little brother, Aster, is not fully developed in some way (the reader is left to suppose he has some mental disability) – and yet Aster is pivotal to the story – and Stephan shows a wonderful brotherly protectiveness towards him from the start.

Yet, above all else, this is a classic adventure story. Whether the reader is well-versed in Ancient Greek myth, or is approaching this book with no prior knowledge, it’s a rollercoaster of a ride through the politics of royalty, the fantasy of beasts and gods, and yet one which retains the realism of teenage hooks about family, friendship and first attraction.

The reader feels assured in the writer’s deft craftsmanship. Womack’s shows this in his threading of themes throughout – from references to metals and blood (this is not one for the faint-hearted), to the sense of being in the ancient world with questions about who wields power and fate. But all the time the reader feels that this is not too unfamiliar territory to grasp – not too far removed from the modern world.

There is gore throughout – from the excitement of the hunt, to the rawness of scraping cheeks with nails to express grief, to the laying out of sacrificial bodies and the spilling of blood; Womack telling the tale of people who saw their destinies in the entrails of animals. The author’s excitement at the energy of classical mythology oozes from the book.

An excellent, and rather visceral entry into the ‘classical’ canon for today’s teens. Age 10+ years. You can buy it here.

Contains reference to sacrificial death and adultery.