King of Ithaka, by Tracy Barrett (Henry Holt, 2010, mg/ya, 261 pages)
On the small island of Ithaka, young Telemachos waits--for his beard to show up, for his father, Odyseus, to come home from Troy. There's nothing particularly urgent in his waiting (and there's nothing about his character that screams Hero), until it becomes clear that there are some on Ithaka who think that enough is enough, and that it is time for Telemachos' mother to accept a new husband, and for the little island kingdom to accept a new ruler.
So Telemachos, his best friend (a centaur, even thought they don't do so well in boats), and a stowaway (a plucky girl hoping to find a place in the world outside of Ithaka), head off to the mainland to seek news of Odysseus. It is a journey that broadens Telemachos' horizon, almost killing him in the process, as he travels to the court of Nestor at Pylos, and then on to Sparta, where bitter old Menelaus lives with his recaptured wife, Helen. It is a journey that Athena herself is watching closely--it is she who is responsible for pushing Telemachos into action. And when he comes home to Ithaka, Telemochos meets the greatest challenge of all--his father.
My gold standard for historical fiction about Bronze Age Greece is Mary Renault's retelling of the story of Theseus (The King Must Die), and it's a pretty darn high standard. Barrett manages to tell an engrossing story, but she never quite achieves Renault's extraordinarily rich recreation of an ancient world where the gods were real--that was a book that rocked my world, this was a book I found interesting, one that passed the time pleasantly without (except for toward the end) ever pulling me in emotionally. But it's not a fair comparison anyway, because, quite frankly, Telemachos' quest is rather small beans on the scale of epic mythological quests. He's more a footnote to a larger story. And unlike The King Must Die, The King of Ithaka is a book for younger readers--it's perfectly appropriate for seventh and eighth graders.
And as such, The King of Ithaka is, I think, an most excellent book to give a specific sort of fan of the Percy Jackson series. Not the sort who's looking for read-alikes, because, although there's a centaur and some monsters and some danger in this one, it is much more measured in its pacing, and less crammed with Adventure on Every Page. Rather, I'd give this one to the reader that wants more of the backstory, the reader whose interest in Greek mythology has been well and truly piqued (and that fact that mythological creatures are alive and well, and take an active role in the story, should add to its appeal).
That reader should, like me, enjoy Telemachos's journey across Greece, a journey that takes him from extremely naive (almost unlikable) boy to a worthy young man, tested and found true-hearted.
Here's another review at Manga Maniac Cafe.