The King Must Die

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The King Must Die

Book description

Theseus is the grandson of the King of Troizen, but his paternity is shrouded in mystery - can he really be the son of the god Poseidon? When he discovers his father's sword beneath a rock, his mother must reveal his true identity: Theseus is the son of Aegeus, King…

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Why read it?

10 authors picked The King Must Die as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

The challenge of writing historical fiction set in the distant past is bridging the vast gap between our modern understanding of the world and that of our distant forebears, since even our most basic assumptions and values undergo enormous changes over time. Those who love Renault’s works about classical antiquity relish the ability of her novels to truly carry us into another world, to make it felt and intelligible. This novel follows the fortunes of the mythic hero Theseus, from his origins in Troizen to his departure for Athens to find his father, his achievement of the kingship of Eleusis,…

I’ve been interested in Greek myths since I was tiny, and in Greece since my first holiday there. (I go back almost every year and try to speak Greek to the locals) Mary Renault brings the legend of the Minotaur to life and turns the legendary characters into very real people, with very human flaws. I first read this book long before I visited Crete and when I eventually got to the ruins of Knossos it all unspooled in my head like a private movie. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read The King Must Die now –…

I first read this novel when I was twelve. It probably went right over my head, but it captured everything I loved about Greek myths while humanizing the hero, Theseus. I might have gotten a bit of a sex education, too, but I was too naïve to notice. I also like the fact that a woman could write a story from a man’s point of view and that she could make him believable and even tragic. This book was a great homage to ancient Greece in all its flamboyance and skullduggery.

I first read this when I was twelve, and it was a reading experience that has really stayed with me. I was totally drawn into the story of Theseus and the Bronze Age world  – I had read a lot of mythology but this was the first time that I had seen mythological characters come to life as real people. When I started writing about the Aegean Bronze Age myself, I realized what a huge debt I owed to Mary Renault for this mixing of archaeological evidence with ancient myths. In fact, for fear of being overly influenced, I was…

From Wendy's list on to bring history to life.

For many, this is part one of a definitive retelling of Theseus’s mythology—and for me, it was a personal delight to see how our individual readings (separated across space and time) led us down similar paths in the sketching of his character. Loathed and reviled by many today (inexplicably, to me) as The Worst Hero of Greek myth, Mary Renault and I both found in his mythic adventures a demigod who was truly worthy of the cult that grew up around him. I defy anyone who has read The King Must Die – and the second novel in Mary Renault’s…

From Amalia's list on retelling Greek myths.

Everyone knows the story of Theseus – sacrificed to a monster in an impossible maze, he defeats the beast with a knife and a ball of string. Now imagine it retold as a perfect, full-length novel. If Theseus really sailed to Crete on a suicide mission, then defeated a terrible foe before returning home to become King of Athens – then this was surely how it happened.

I’ve been obsessed with Greek mythology forever – and I love this book for taking its story seriously as history. The writing is superb. The action is non-stop. But perhaps the book’s greatest…

As a historical novelist, I am drawn to novels that entwine history and imagination together. I was first inspired to write historical fiction after I discovered Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, in her Alexander trilogy. 

I also love Renault’s The King Must Die and The Bull from the Seaher Theseus series which re-imagines the Minotaur legend and the exploits of the mythical Theseus. I became totally absorbed in the lavish yet brutal world that Renault rendered through her elegant prose and intense imagery. I also admire Renault’s great knowledge of the classical world and her courage to write…

Mary Renault’s retelling of the life of the Greek hero Theseus, from his childhood up to escaping the labyrinth, was one of the earliest novels set in the ancient world that I read. It completely captured my imagination through the way it mixes the bones of the myth with a world which tries to reconstruct what it might have been like to live in ancient Greece. Renault’s writing is full of detail and her characters are rich and complicated.

From Liz's list on ancient Greece and Rome.

Mary Renault’s deep research illuminates the most elusive and fascinating aspects of classical life, from the Labyrinth to the Eleusinian Mysteries and beyond. The King Must Die and its sequel, The Bull from the Sea, tell the story of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur and great king of Athens. As a hero from the generation before the Trojan War, his story is essential for understanding later legends. Renault places her compelling characters in a propulsive plot full of adventure, adultery, and magic to transport readers to an unforgettable world of gods, heroes, and monsters.

From Jordanna's list on inspired by Greek mythology.

This is the book that began my passion for writing historical fiction. Published in 1958, I read it in my early teens and became hooked on modern interpretations of ancient stories. This is no dry retelling of the legend of Theseus, early king of Athens, slayer of the dread Minotaur, but a fully formed relatable character who learns, grows, and conquers. I like to think that Renault was peering over my shoulder to inform my own writing.

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