Ithaca by Claire North

Penelope has been waiting for over 17 years for the return of her husband Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. Her son Telemachus is already grown into a young man eager to be as famous as his father. When pirates attack one of the coastal cities in search of gold, Penelope must try to defend herself with the few men who did not leave for Troy. Meanwhile, those same men expect her to choose a new husband. And then there are rumours that her cousin Clythemnestra is hiding in Ithaca, after the murder of her husband Agamemnon.

Jes, another Greek myth retelling. By an author unknown to me, who normally writes science fiction. ‘Ithaca‘ is the first book of a planned trilogy and tells the story of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife from the perspective of the goddess Hera. This unique point of view is an original choice and makes for an entertaining book. Hera is critical for her fellow Gods and the human race, but also a loving mother to the three Greek queens (Helen, Clythemnestra and Penelope).

However, the pace of the story is ridiculously slow and very little happens, especially in the middle of the book. The book is very character-driven, but I don’t think Penelope and Telemachus really come off as interesting. I felt they were overshadowed by Clythemnestra and Ellektra who also pop up in the story. There are so many suitors involved and I couldn’t keep up with who was who. And then you also have Penelope’s women who are preparing for war and who feel interchangeable. I didn’t build a relationship with any of the characters.

North writes beautiful sentences with an overtly feminist slant. But she couldn’t always hold my attention. So I don’t know yet if I want to read the next part. This book reminded me of ‘Argo‘ by Mark Knowles. Trying to turn a myth into a series involves a lot of detail and then the story loses some of its value.

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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Stone blind by Nathalie Haynes

Medusa is a Gorgon, but unlike her two immortal sisters Sthenno and Euryale, she’s a mere mortal girl. During a visit to Athena’s temple, she’s raped by the sea god Poseidon. The goddess takes her revenge afterwards by cursing Medusa with snake hair like her sisters and a deadly stare. Anyone who looks at her turns to stone. Meanwhile, Perseus, son of the supreme god Zeus and the mortal Danae, must go on a quest to save his mother from a forced marriage. His mission? The head of a Gorgon.

There’s no one who can tell more enthusiastically about Greek myths than Nathalie Haynes in the press, podcasts or her non fiction books. This enthusiasm can also be found in her novels. Stone blind is an absolute gem!

Stone blind tells Medusa,’s story, but it isn’t the story you’re familiar with. In this book everything is turned upside down. Gorgons are not monsters with snake heads and Perseus is not the hero of the day, but a stupid boy who can achieve nothing without help from the Gods.

And those Gods, perhaps even more than Medusa, play the leading role. Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Athena… They watch over the humans and play with them. There’s a lot of humour in the chapters of the Gods, but also quite a bit of drama. They are always fighting each other or cursing mortals.

Just as in ‘A thousand ships‘, the chapters are told alternately from many perspectives. Medusa, Athena, Perseus and Andromeda pass by frequently, but Haynes chooses so many different characters who all contribute to the story in their own right. This is storytelling in its purest form. I did like the chapters of Medusa and her sisters the most and disliked Perseus off course . I hadn’t heard about Cassiope or her daughter Andromeda before, so this was a new story to me. It all falls nicely into place at the end of the book.

No matter how good the books of Madeline Miller, Pat Barker or Jennifer Saint, Nathalie Haynes is the true queen of Greek myth retellings. I hope there will be another book soon and in the meantime I must make time for ‘the children of Jocasta’.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is book 12/20 for ‘20 books of summer‘. What’s your favourite Greek myth retelling?

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

As daughters of Minos, king of Crete, Ariadne and Phaedra watch 14 Athenian children being sacrificed to their half-brother the Minotaur every year. When the Athenian prince Theseus volunteers to be a sacrifice and attemps to kill the monster, Ariadne immediately falls for his good looks and heroic stories. She promises him her help and in return asks Theseus to take her away from her father’s wrath.

Jennifer Saint made her debut with this story about Ariadne. I have read Elektra before and enjoyed the story, especially because of the very human Helen, so I decided to try this one out as well. A subject I know a lot less about than the Trojan War.

Ariadne opens with the more or less well-known story of Theseus and the minotaur. But what happens afterwards to Ariadne, Phaedra and Theseus is less well known. We follow Ariadne on Naxos and her meeting with Dionysus, while we also reads Phaedra’s story in Crete, after the disappearance of her sister. In addition to the stories of the main characters, many other mythological characters are present: Daedalus and Icarus, Medusa and Perseus, Pasiphae, Hippolythus and even Medea.

With Ariadne, Saint presents a credible, somewhat naive main character with whom you quickly sympathize. Her sister Phaedra is much more lively and their mutual sisterly relationship is beautifully developed.

The story has a clear feminist angle. The focus is on how women are punished by the gods through the actions of men. Women are the playthings of heroes who take all the credit. You meet a Theseus who can’t really be called sympathetic. The story also explores the rites of Dionysus and his followers the maenads. It doesn’t exclude the hardships that women who ran away to Naxos had to face at home.

I enjoyed this book very much and think it’s certainly as good as Elektra. Both books have something special and it’s hard for me to point out a clear favourite. In terms of writing style and pacing I still prefer Miller and Haynes, but Saint really belongs in this list. I wonder which myth she will explore in her next book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Jennifer Saint so far?

Elektra by Jennifer Saint

Clythemnestra helplessly watches her eldest daughter Iphigenia being sacrificed by her husband Agamemnon in return for a fair wind to start a war against Troy. The war that launched a thousand ships to get her sister Helen back for her brother-in-law Menelaus. Clythemnestra’s youngest daughter Elektra waits for ten years for her beloved father’s return while her mother is consumed by revenge, together with her lover Aegisthus. Meanwhile in Troy, no one believes the words of Princess Cassandra who sees her city going down in flames in one of her visions, gifted by Apollo.

This is the first book I’ve read by Saint and it was a very nice introduction to her work. In recent years, I have read several books about the Trojan War and/or the House of Atreus so the events are anything but new to me. Some of these books are ‘House of names’, ‘The silence of the girls’, ‘Daughters of Sparta‘, ‘A thousand ships‘, ‘A song for Achilles’… I feel that Saint stays close to the classical interpretation of the Iliad. She includes three female perspectives: that of Clythemnestra, Cassandra and of course Elektra who gives this book its name.

Compared to some of the raw and bloody scenes found in ‘House of names’ or ‘Silence of the girls’, Saint certainly doesn’t shy away from drama, but focuses more on character development. The parallels between Clythemnestra and Elektra are particularly strong. They both seek revenge and as a result can no longer see things clearly. This Clythemnestra feels real. Although the one in Toibin’s work remains the most ruthless. Elektra is not my favourite character from this well-known story and I have some trouble understanding the reasons behind her actions. But I liked the inclusion of her life in this book. Her story becomes more prominent in the second half of the book and I’m glad we still follow her after her father’s return from Troy.

Cassandra is definitely a nice addition to include a Trojan perspective and you really sympathize with her. The fall of Troy remains so dramatic. My favourite scene was one between Cassandra and Hector on the eve of his death. I found it only a bit strange that Cassandra’s twin brother Helenus is omitted from the story. I also liked her ‘friendship’ with Helen, in times when no one believes her.

This brings me to Helen. Although Saint had the disadvantage that the Trojan War is a bit of a been there, done that for me, I really want to congratulate her on how she portrayed Helen. Although she’s only a side character, it’s the first time that Helen is represented as I can imagine her. I normally hate Helen. But in ‘Elektra‘ she’s human, vain and not unfathomably handsome. She chooses Menelaus as a husband because he’s different from the other men. And her relationship with Paris and the royal family in Troy is not perfect. This is a Helen who bears her destiny while still standing above the rest because she’s the daughter of Zeus and thus a plaything of the Gods.

I’m now very curious to read ‘Ariadne’ because I think discovering more unfamiliar events from Greek mythology will make me appreciate Saint’s writing style even more.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Jennifer Saint yet? Who’s your favourite character from the Iliad?

Argo by Mark Knowles

Jason discovers his parents were overthrown by his uncle Pelias who now occupies the throne. In order to reclaim his rightful position as prince, he sets out on a quest to steal the Golden Fleece from king Aeetes of Colchis. Together with a bunch of so-called Argonauts, he travels by sea and faces some serious life threatening challenges before he will arrive at Colchis.

Jason and the golden fleece is one of those Greek myths not so familiar to me. I was expecting a nice retelling of this adventure and in some ways, this is exactly what you get. We follow Jason and his Argonauts on their sea voyage to Colchis. Stopping on beaches and in forgotten places where the local tribes are a threat. There is no focus on the Godly perspective, although there is a seer on board and Jason seems to hear voices.

There is a whole bunch of Argonauts, which means a lot of names. And I just couldn’t get a hold on who was who. Except those names I knew from other myths such as Herakles, Castor and Pollux of Sparta and Peleus (the father of Achilles). Another thing that bothered me was that every stop formed a challenge. Some tribe that was friendly at first but then becomes hostile. Therefore the story felt repetitive.

I believe I missed a strong female character, as I’m used to in Greek feministic retellings. Such as in ‘A thousand ships‘, ‘Daughters of Sparta‘, ‘The silence of the girls’… Of course, there is Medea. I do find her one of the most fascinating characters in Greek mythology. But she is just a side character in this book. Although I believe she will get more prominent role in the sequel. Yes, there will be a sequel. After more than 500 pages, the story stops abruptly and I am not sure if I want to read another whopper of a book like this. Maybe I do, if I know there will be a focus on Medea.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy ‘Argo‘ at all. There were a lot of likable scenes and it’s a great adventure. I just didn’t have any emotional connection with Jason and all the fights were too similar.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A thousand ships by Nathalie Haynes

The war that launched a thousand ships has come to an end. Troy has been burned by the Greeks. Thousands of men lost their lives, but even more women lost everything. From the Trojan queen Hecabe and her daughters, the Greek women Penelope and Laodamia awaiting their husband’s fate, the nymph Oenone who was abandoned by Paris to the fighting Hera, Aphrodite and Athene. This is the Trojan war trough the eyes of the women, girls and goddesses who lost everything. Their home, their family and their body.

It’s no secret that I love Greek retellings, especially of the Trojan war. In recent years, I read a few books who offer a female perspective on those events. Both ‘The silence of the girls‘ and ‘The song of Achilles‘ heavily focus on the relationship between Briseis, Achilles and Patroclus. ‘A thousand ships‘ has a more ambitious premise and wants to give more women a voice.

The books opens with the Trojan Creusa waking up in the dead of the night of a fire. Troy is burning. Odysseus’ list with the wooden horse has worked. A few of the coming chapters are set on the Trojan beach after the war, when the royal woman of Troy, all except Cassandra who already sees what will happen, are awaiting their fate. But we also discover what happened during the war and go back to the events that caused it in the first place. Was it really all about Paris and Helen falling in love? Or were there greater forces at play?

From the mount Olympus, where in one of my favourite chapters three goddesses are fighting for a golden apple, to the battlefield where the Amazon princess Penthesilea is fighting Achilles, the same Achilles Menelaus’ daughter Iphigenia thought she was going to wed on the last day of her life. Haynes writes a clever novel about so many women, even some lesser known such as Laodamia or Chryseis. The main perspective is that of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry who hears a calling from Homer to write this story.

Where Miller really followed the classic interpretation of Homer, Haynes uses a lot of ancients texts and plays to tell this story. So it’s no direct interpretation of the Iliad. This makes for a more modern feeling and some twists that were new to me. But it is such a gripping and entertaining novel at the same time. The chapters are short, and sometimes you wish you can get to know the woman a bit better before moving on to the next one, but all together this is a great introduction to the ancient story. For both newcomers and fans.

Some people are disappointed in her use of different classical texts, others had hoped the story would be even more feministic. The focus is on the story of the women but of course men are still prominent. Penelope is waiting for her beloved husband Odysseus (who is just not a worthy man, can we agree on that?), Klythemnestra is full of hatred and revenge for Agamemnom (I didn’t like the Klythemnestra in this book, I preferred ‘Daughters of Sparta‘ and ‘The house of names’) and Paris chooses Aphrodite because he’s promised the most beautiful princess of Greece (leaving his first wife Oenone and his son behind, Oenone’s chapter was also one of my favourites).

As Haynes tells us in her afterword that Cassandra is her favourite, I’m waiting for her (or another author) to give that girl her own novel. She definitely deserves that. If you like Greek retellings or you want to give this ‘genre’ a try, then I highly recommend to start with ‘A thousand ships’.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read this one? What’s your favourite Greek myth retelling?

Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood

Helen and Klythemnestra are the daughters of the Spartan king Tyndareos and his wife queen Leda. When rumours start to circulate around Helen’s birth Klythemnestra, although being the eldest, is forced to marry king Agamemnon of Mycenae. Helen becomes the heir of Sparta and her father receives all the kings of Greece to compete for her hand. The choice falls upon Menelaos, Agamemnon’s brother. Neither marriage will be happy and both sisters will be drawn into the huge conflict of the Trojan War.

I love Greek myth retellings, that’s no secret. Having already read Colm Toibin’s ‘House of Names’ where Klythemnestra and her children appear as main characters, I was curious to see how Heywood would tell her story. Both Helen and Klythemnestra are demonized women. One being the girl that launched a thousand ships and caused the destruction of Troy, the other a husband killer.

Daughters of Sparta‘ tells the story of the sisters from their youth as happy princesses in their fathers palace until right after the siege of Troy. I’m in general no fan of the Helen and Paris storyline. But Heywood manages to create some sympathy for Helen, at least until Paris arrives. Then it goes all so fast and her decision is made as quickly as the choice of how she will dress.

Klythemnestra’s story takes us to the Greek shores where she tries to stop her husband killing her daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice for the Gods. Still, Heywood tries to create a woman who is in pain but not full of revenge. This works to a certain extend, but I missed the fury and hate I imagine when thinking about Klythemnestra.

I think the main problem with this novel is maybe that Heywood tries to paint their lives as them being just normal women. She also focuses on their unhappy relationship with their husbands. This implies that she omits certain things from the classic story, especially once we are in Troy. No Achilles, almost no Hector, no Apollo and a Cassandra that doesn’t speak out about her visions.

But still the fall of Troy took my breath away. I always hope this story will end differently, but of course it never does. The cruel fate of the women is again described vividly and gave me goosebumps (and reminded me of Pat Barker’s ‘Silence of the girls’).

Maybe, this isn’t the best retelling. But Heywood writes straightforward and can set a small foot next to Miller and Barker in my opinion. Daughters of Sparta takes a moderate approach towards two sisters whose stories have never been told that way.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher to provide me with a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

This is book 5 for #20booksofsummer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.