Renault tells the story of Theseus as a young man, starting with his childhood in Troizen, moving to his unanticipated time in Eleusis, meeting his father in Athens, and then orchestrating the fall of the Minoan civilization on Crete (with the help of an earthquake, based on the volcanic eruption of Thera and associated earthquake). The writing is beautiful, although most of the events revolve around death. So very different from our lives today, the lives of the ancient Greeks were never far from war, death, blood, rape, and sacrifice.
The opening few pages of the book deal with a ritual sacrifice that startles and horrifies young Theseus, but he soon becomes accustomed to those events, and he has no real qualms about dispatching robbers on his way to Eleusis, or participating in other killings (in fairness, these come about when his life is threatened). Somehow the book isn’t gory or graphic, which contributes to the sense that these violent acts are everyday experiences for the people of the time–there is no need for Theseus, as the narrator, to detail what everyone already knows. Theseus is also a teenager when he’s becoming a king and leading a revolt in Crete, which seems odd, but also very modern in the way of The Hunger Games. Renault does rely heavily on real archaeological studies to set the scene and inform the political and religious institutions, and that adds a depth and feeling of reality to the book.
While I enjoyed reading this (despite the violence, it’s well-written, and hard to put down once you get started), it suffers from comparison to The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Miller told the story of Achilles through Patroclus, which allowed her to exploit a new viewpoint, whereas Theseus tells his own story in The King Must Die. Miller also delved far more into the interpersonal relationships and motivations of the characters. The King Must Die is a more traditional work of historical fiction and is less inventive, but if you’re interested in retellings of myths or imagining life in ancient Greece, you’ll probably like it.