Tis the season…to escape holiday madness with a book that takes you far outside your own world! We’re back with more ratings and reviews of recently published retellings and reimagining of Greek myths (yes, all Greek this time). The reviews are more mixed this time around, including one DNF. *gasp*
The Women of Troy: A Novel by Pat Barker (2021, Doubleday)
To be honest, this 3-day read was a disappointing experience. In part, that’s because this book suffered in comparison: I had recently finished A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, which covers the same general subject matter, and had re-read Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, to which The Women of Troy is a sequel. But comparison to similar books can’t explain away all the problems with this book. Like Silence, this book is primarily narrated by Briseis, except for some chapters in the second half, which are narrated by other—male—characters. While it is true that using male characters as temporary narrators allows a glimpse at well-known scenes from myth (like private conversations between Patroclus and Achilles in Silence, or some explanation of Calchas’ background in Women), if your stated intention is to center women’s experiences and voices, why on earth would you choose to use male narrators to rehash scenes we all know from other sources? If you need a break from Briseis, why not choose another captive woman—Hecuba, for example—to narrate a few chapters? Why not imagine some unsung moment of women’s lives in camp, instead of depicting yet another king’s council?
This combined with the somewhat dry narration and annoying style of Briseis’ speech (it works much better in audiobook format, but isn’t fabulous there either) makes it hard to recommend this book. If you loved The Silence of the Girls, then ignore me and give it a try. Otherwise, if you want a story about the aftermath of the sack of Troy, stick with A Thousand Ships.
Mythos by Stephen Fry (2017, Chronicle Books)
When celebrities write books about semi-academic subjects, I never expect them to be good—even when that celebrity is the delightfully clever Stephen Fry. So I went into this book with low expectations, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked: Fry is of the generation of British men who were brought up on a classical education; he talks about learning Ancient Greek and being enthralled with Greek myths from a very young age. He uses our ancient sources keenly.
It feels like an oxymoron to call a book mythological nonfiction, but that’s essentially what this is: Fry implicitly positions himself as a modern-day Hesiod, telling the world’s origin stories of the birth of the gods and the creation of the world—and doing it in a way that is MUCH more enjoyable to read than Hesiod. I loved hearing stories I knew well retold in a high-drama fashion and getting a refresher on stories I had forgotten or never learned about the more obscure characters of myth (it’s been a long time since I read the Homeric hymns, y’all). If you have a middle schooler or teen who’s interested in myth, or if you’re an adult who wants a fun refresher course, this would be a great place to start. I highly recommend the audiobook, read by Fry himself.
Heroes by Stephen Fry (2020, Chronicle Books)
Part Two in Stephen Fry’s adventure through Greek mythology, Heroes is exactly what it says: the stories of the great heroes of Greek myth who lived in the age after that covered in Mythos. With the same charming storytelling and humor from his first book, Fry recounts the exploits of the great Greek heroes—Jason, Heracles, Meleager, Atalanta, Perseus, Bellerophon, Oedipus, Orpheus, Theseus—from the very well known to the less often examined parts of their stories. There were occasional passages in Heroes that rubbed me the wrong way: it felt like Fry did more glossing over of violence against women and finding excuses for the terrible deeds done by the heroes than he did for the gods in Mythos. Sometimes it makes sense—finding a potential modern analogy for the madness Hera inflicted on Heracles in some former NFL players’ CTE-induced violence—but at other times it felt like an attempt to make an ancient hero into something resembling a modern hero, and we should make no mistake that the moral standards for heroes have shifted dramatically since antiquity.
Fry’s third book, Troy, came out earlier this year and covers—you guessed it—the fabled Trojan War. After reading Mythos and Heroes back to back I need a break from mythological nonfiction, but when I do get around to reading Troy, I’ll be sure to report back on how it compares to the first two books!
Lore by Alexandra Bracken (2021, Disney-Hyperion)
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (DID NOT FINISH)
Y’all, I tried to like this book, I really did. The story is an interesting concept. A third of the way through, I was bored; I decided to give it until the halfway mark to hook me. It didn’t. I quit reading. This is one of a very small number of books I have ever abandoned in my life, which should tell you that I didn’t make that decision lightly. It is a YA novel, but a novel that is good for teens will also be good for adults; teens aren’t dumb and they get bored with books just as easily as us not-so-young adults do. To me, this author just didn’t have the chops to make her good story concept into an actual good story.
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint (2021, Flatiron Books)
So often, the story of Ariadne begins with Theseus and ends with Dionysus: Theseus comes to Crete, Ariadne betrays her father and leaves Crete with him, Theseus abandons her on Naxos, Dionysus comes and rescues/marries her. And that’s it. Ariadne does not get the lengthy and detailed after-adventure life of Medea, her older contemporary who also betrayed her father for a man who ultimately abandoned her. In this novel, Jennifer Saint gives us Ariadne’s after-adventure life. The whole Cretan affair with the Minotaur and Theseus is wrapped up in the first 70 pages or so; then we see how Ariadne struggles to survive on Naxos, how her relationship with Dionysus blossoms…and then comes to a reckoning point.
Saint does a beautiful job of telling all the intertwining stories of Ariadne, Phaedra, Minos, Daedalus, Theseus, and Dionysus. We see Daedalus’ tragedy-stained escape from Crete and hear about what happens when, after years of searching, Minos finally tracks down Daedalus. Saint reconciles the varied aspects of Dionysus and his cult by presenting them as a development over time, as Dionysus loses his carefree nature and his rites begin to reflect his growing jealousy of the Olympian gods’ respect. Theseus is depicted less as Fry’s conquering role model and more as we see such heroes today: self-absorbed, dishonest, coolly cruel and calculating.
Even though Ariadne and Phaedra are sisters and both consorts of Theseus, their stories are rarely told together; Saint weaves in the story of Euripides’ Hippolytus and even has Ariadne present at Athens for the climactic moment. She presents an intriguing version of Phaedra in the intervening years between the Minotaur and Hippolytus as the clever queen of Athens who never trusts Theseus’ version of events, who gains power and respect for herself, who plays a key role in instituting the tradition of dressing Athena’s cult statue in a new peplos at every Panathenaic festival. In many ways the story of this book is just as much Phaedra’s as it is Ariadne’s, but Princesses of Crete maybe wouldn’t have been as nice a title.
Although the writing sometimes feels a bit stilted, like Saint is trapped in the feeling that mythological stories must be presented somewhat formally, the portrayal of emotion and of the realities of what a woman’s life, responsibilities, and death would look like in these situations is quite well done. I was particularly touched by the portrayal of Pasiphae, who in this version of events is a broken victim of the gods’ vindictive whims, rather than a shamelessly twisted monster as she is in Madeline Miller’s Circe.
Galatea by Madeline Miller (2013, Bloomsbury)
Oh Madeline, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Galatea is actually a short story, not a full book, and it has all the delicious suspense and drama that I love about that format. There are, as I was reminded by Stephen Fry’s books above, two Galateas in Greek myth: the one I usually think about is Galatea the nymph, adored by the cyclops Polyphemus; the other, the subject of this story, is the sculpture of Pygmalion who comes to life—whom I had forgotten was named Galatea. This fabulous short story imagines Galatea, Pygmalion, and their child Paphos a decade after Galatea came to life from marble, and the sinister turn their lives and relationships have taken. This is a 5-minute read, but it will stick with you!