Excerpt from A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Thousand Ships

by Natalie Haynes

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes X
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2021, 368 pages

    Oct 2021, 368 pages


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Will Heath
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Sing, Muse, he says, and the edge in his voice makes it clear that this is not a request. If I were minded to accede to his wish, I might say that he sharpens his tone on my name, like a warrior drawing his dagger across a whetstone, preparing for the morning's battle. But I am not in the mood to be a muse today. Perhaps he hasn't thought of what it is like to be me. Certainly he hasn't: like all poets, he thinks only of himself. But it is surprising that he hasn't considered how many other men there are like him, every day, all demanding my unwavering attention and support. How much epic poetry does the world really need?

Every conflict joined, every war fought, every city besieged, every town sacked, every village destroyed. Every impossible journey, every shipwreck, every homecoming: these stories have all been told, and countless times. Can he really believe he has something new to say? And does he think he might need me to help him keep track of all his characters, or to fill those empty moments where the metre doesn't fit the tale?

I look down and see that his head is bowed and his shoulders, though broad, are sloped. His spine has begun to curve at the top. He is old, this man. Older than his hard-edged voice suggests. I'm curious. It's usually the young for whom poetry is such an urgent matter. I crouch down to see his eyes, closed for a moment with the intensity of his prayer. I cannot recognize him while they are shut.

He is wearing a beautiful gold brooch, tiny leaves wrought into a gleaming knot. So someone has rewarded him handsomely for his poetry in the past. He has talent and he has prospered, no doubt with my assistance. But still he wants more, and I wish I could see his face properly, in the light.

I wait for him to open his eyes, but I have already made up my mind. If he wants my help, he will make an offering for it. That is what mortals do: first they ask, then they beg, finally they bargain. So I will give him his words when he gives me that brooch.


A deafening crack awoke her, and she caught her breath. She looked around for the baby, before remembering that he was no longer a baby, but had seen five summers come and go while the war raged outside the city walls. He was in his own room, of course he was. Her breathing slowed, and she waited to hear him cry out for his mother, terrified by the thunderstorm. But the cry did not come: he was brave, her little boy. Too brave to cry out at a lightning bolt, even if it was hurled by Zeus himself. She wrapped the coverlet over her shoulders, and tried to guess what hour of the night it was. The pitter-patter of rain was growing louder. It must be early morning, because she could see across the room. But the light was peculiar: a fat yellow colour which caught the dark red walls and painted them an ugly, bloody shade. How could the light be so yellow unless the sun was rising? And how could the sun fill her rooms when she could hear the rain falling on the roof? Disorientated by her recent dreams, it was several moments before she realized the acrid tang was in her nostrils, not her imagination. The crash had not been thunder, but a more earthly destruction; the pitter-patter was not rain, but the sound of dried wood and straw crackling in the heat. And the flickering yellow light was not the sun.

Realizing the danger she was in, she leapt from her bed, trying to undo her previous slowness. She must get outside and away from the fire. The smoke was already coating her tongue with its greasy soot. She called for her husband, Aeneas, and her son, Euryleon, but they made no reply. She left her small bedroom – the slender cot with its red-brown coverlet that she had so proudly woven for herself when she was first married – but she did not get far. She caught sight of the flames through the small high window just outside her bedroom door, and all speed slid away from her feet into the floor. It was not her home which was ablaze. It was the citadel: the highest point of the city of Troy, which only watch-fires or sacrificial flames or Helios, god of the sun, travelling overhead with his horse-drawn chariot, had ever lit before. Now fire was jumping through the columns of stone – so cool to the touch – and she watched in silence as part of the roof caught, and a sudden shower of sparks flew from the wood, tiny whirling fireflies in the smoke.

Excerpted from A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. Copyright © 2021 by Natalie Haynes. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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