Elektra by Jennifer Saint

I enjoyed Jennifer Saint’s first novel, Ariadne, a retelling of Greek myth from a female perspective, so I was looking forward to reading her new one, Elektra. If you’re familiar with Greek mythology, you’ll know Elektra as the daughter of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, and his wife Clytemnestra, the sister of Helen of Troy. In this novel, Jennifer Saint tells the stories of both Elektra and Clytemnestra, as well as another woman – Cassandra, the Trojan priestess and prophet.

Elektra begins with the Greeks preparing to go to war against Troy. In order to please the gods so they will produce a wind to allow the fleet to set sail, Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. The devastated Clytemnestra vows to take revenge on her husband, but she will have a long time to wait as the Trojan War will last ten years. Meanwhile, Iphigenia’s younger sister Elektra grows up watching in disapproval of her mother’s relationship with her new lover Aegisthus and waiting for her father to return. When Agamemnon does eventually come home – bringing Cassandra with him as a prize of war – further tragedy will strike the family and this time it is Elektra who is left vowing revenge.

This is another beautiful and insightful Greek retelling from Jennifer Saint, but I didn’t like it quite as much as Ariadne, probably because there were large parts of the Ariadne/Phaedra story that were new to me whereas I felt that this book was too similar to others I’ve read recently – Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, to name a few. If I’d known nothing about Troy or the House of Atreus, I’m sure I would have enjoyed this book much more. Still, there are scenes and moments that never lose their impact no matter how many times you’ve read them: Clytemnestra’s grief and agony when her husband murders their daughter or Cassandra’s desperation as she tries to convince her fellow Trojans that there are Greeks hiding in the giant wooden horse.

I do wonder why Elektra was chosen as the title of the novel, as it’s as much the story of Clytemnestra and Cassandra as it is of Elektra (each of them narrating their own chapters). In fact, for the first half of the book at least, Elektra’s role is the smallest – and she is certainly the most difficult to like of the three narrators. I had a lot of sympathy with the doomed Cassandra, both blessed with the gift of prophecy and cursed to never be believed, and while some of Clytemnestra’s choices may be questionable, how could you not feel for a mother who has lost a child in such a horrifying way? Elektra, though, is harder to understand; I didn’t think it was made very clear why she felt such loyalty to her father and why she could forgive his murderous actions but not her mother’s. Although I did enjoy Cassandra’s chapters, perhaps if they’d been left out there would have been more time to explore the relationship between Clytemnestra and Elektra.

Although this book wasn’t completely successful for me, I’ll look forward to more by Jennifer Saint, particularly if they focus less on Troy and more on other areas of Greek myth.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I wanted to join in with this year’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month (hosted by Buried in Print) but knew I wouldn’t have time for one of her longer novels; The Penelopiad, at 199 pages, seemed the perfect choice as it would also count for the Novellas in November event (hosted by 746 Books and Bookish Beck). The Penelopiad was published in 2005 as part of the Canongate Myths series, of which I’ve previously read Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić and Ragnarok by AS Byatt. It’s a retelling of the events of the Odyssey from the perspectives of Penelope and the twelve maids who were hanged by her son, Telemachus.

Penelope narrates her story from a modern day underworld where she wanders through the fields of asphodel occasionally encountering the spirits of other characters from Greek mythology. With little to do in the afterlife other than to think and remember, Penelope recalls her childhood in Sparta, her marriage to Odysseus and, particularly, the events that followed her husband’s departure to fight in the Trojan War. Left behind in Ithaca to raise baby Telemachus, Penelope awaits news of Odysseus but as the years go by it looks less and less likely that he is going to return.

Many of you will already know how the story progresses from there – the suitors, the shroud, the fate of the twelve maids, the bed carved from an olive tree – so I won’t go into the plot in any more detail. However, Atwood doesn’t just use Homer’s Odyssey as a source; she also draws upon other works including Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths to help fill in the gaps and provide a different view of Penelope’s character and story. Penelope is usually associated with faithfulness and patience and seen as perhaps a less interesting woman than Helen of Troy or Clytemnestra; in The Penelopiad, Penelope tells us how frustrated she is with the way she has been portrayed and how she really feels about rivals such as Helen.

Penelope’s own narrative is interrupted now and then by her twelve maids, who speak with one voice in a Greek chorus. As well as giving their own version of the events that build up to Odysseus ordering Telemachus to kill them, they also comment on Penelope’s account, leading us to question her motives and to wonder what exactly was and was not true. The sections narrated by the maids are written in a different style every time – a poem, a ballad, a lecture and even a court trial – but although I understood the need for a second perspective other than Penelope’s, these were my least favourite parts of the book. I found the modern language used by Penelope and the maids a bit jarring too and I think overall, I would have just preferred a more straightforward and conventional retelling of Penelope’s story.

I didn’t find this as satisfying as the other Margaret Atwood books I’ve read, but it was a quick, witty and entertaining read and it’s always good to see women from Greek myth given voices of their own.

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

After reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls a few years ago, I wasn’t really expecting a sequel, but here it is: The Women of Troy. I’m sure if you wanted to you could read this one as a standalone, but I would recommend reading both as this is a direct continuation of the first. Together, the two novels tell the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath.

The Silence of the Girls was based on the events of Homer’s Iliad; this second novel is set after the fall of Troy, when the victorious Greek invaders are stranded on the shore, waiting for the winds to change so that their ships can sail home. Trapped there with them are the Trojan women they have taken captive, some of whom were once queens and princesses but are now treated as slaves. Among them is Briseis, who had been taken by the great Greek warrior Achilles as a war prize and then married off to his friend Alcimus after Achilles’ death.

As in the previous novel, Briseis is our main narrator, but there are also some chapters written from other perspectives: Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, desperate to prove himself as great as his father, and Calchas, a priest and prophet. One of my criticisms of The Silence of the Girls was that, despite the title, we only actually heard the voice of one girl, Briseis, while large sections of the book were written from the point of view of Achilles – and the title of The Women of Troy also seems slightly misleading, as we have two male perspectives and only one female. However, this time I felt that, at least through Briseis’ eyes, we do see more of the other women in the camp than we did in the first book. These include Hecuba, the former Queen of Troy and wife of the murdered King Priam; their daughter Cassandra, who has the gift – or curse – of prophecy; and Andromache, the widow of Hector who was killed by Achilles during the war. All of these women have interesting stories of their own, as well as now all sharing the same problem: how to cope with living amongst the men who destroyed their city.

Then – and now – people seem to take it for granted that I loved Achilles. Why wouldn’t I? I had the fastest, strongest, bravest, most beautiful man of his generation in my bed – how could I not love him?

He killed my brothers.

We women are peculiar creatures. We tend not to love those who murder our families.

As this entire novel is set during that period of waiting for the weather to change, it’s a slower paced and more character-driven story than the previous one. The plot, so much as there is one, revolves around the attempts of the Trojans to bury the body of their beloved King Priam, brutally killed by Pyrrhus and denied proper burial. Despite this, I still found the story quite gripping and enjoyed getting to know some of the women better. I’m wondering whether there will be a third book, as this one felt very like the middle book in a trilogy to me.

Thanks to Penguin UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 40/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

There have been several novels published recently retelling Greek myths from a feminine perspective; this is another – and one that I really enjoyed. As the title suggests, it’s the story of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphaë of Crete, but it’s also the story of another woman, her younger sister Phaedra.

As two princesses of Crete, Ariadne and Phaedra grow up in the comfort of the palace at Knossos, but their brother Asterion is not so lucky. Born half man and half bull, he has become known as the Minotaur and banished to the underground labyrinth designed by Daedalus. Each year fourteen young men and women arrive from Athens to be sacrificed to the Minotaur – until the year when Theseus, Prince of Athens, is one of the fourteen and Ariadne falls in love. Swept away by the prince’s good looks and courage, Ariadne decides to help him kill the Minotaur and escape from the labyrinth, but this means betraying her family and the people of Crete.

If you have any knowledge of Greek mythology, you probably already know all of this, but I think Ariadne’s adventures after she is forced to flee Crete with Theseus are less well known, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The Minotaur story only occupies the first few chapters of the novel, with much more time spent describing what happens after that, and it was fascinating to read about Ariadne’s relationship with the god Dionysus on the island of Naxos, as well as the fate of Phaedra, left behind to deal with the aftermath of her sister’s betrayal.

Jennifer Saint has a lot to say in this novel about heroes and hero worship, particularly in her depiction of Theseus (very much the villain of the book and certainly not the Theseus we meet in Mary Renault’s The King Must Die) and of the cult of Dionysus and his female followers, the maenads. She touches on why people feel the need to put their faith in heroes and what happens when their eyes are opened to the truth, as well as exploring the differences between mortals and gods, the position of women in Ancient Greek society and how, in Greek mythology, the gods usually make the women pay the price for the acts of men.

When I first began to read, I hadn’t expected part of the novel to be written from Phaedra’s perspective, but I think using her as a viewpoint character as well as Ariadne adds more scope to the story and makes it even more interesting than it would otherwise have been. However, I thought Phaedra’s storyline suffered near the end from the weak characterisation of Hippolytus, who plays such an important role in her later life. The conclusion of Ariadne’s story is slightly disappointing too; it felt rushed and didn’t have quite the impact it should have had. Still, I enjoyed this book, particularly the first half, and I think it compares well to Circe by Madeline Miller.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is a wonderful, magical read and the perfect conclusion to Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy which combines Russian fairy tales, history and folklore with an atmospheric and wintry medieval setting. I loved the previous two books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, so I went into this one with high hopes and high expectations – and I’m happy to say that I thought it was the best of the three. You may be wondering whether it’s necessary to read the books in order; my answer would be yes, as I think you will definitely get more out of the story if you start at the beginning.

As the novel opens, Moscow is on fire and blame has fallen on Vasilisa Petrovna. With a furious mob calling for her to be burned as a witch, Vasya manages to escape with the help of the magical beings only she and one or two others can see. However, her freedom comes at a cost and, as part of the bargain, an evil spirit is unleashed into the world once more. This could have serious implications for Vasya’s cousin, Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, who is already facing the threat of the Tatar commander Mamai and his Golden Horde. As the Tatars advance into the land of Rus’, Vasya must enlist the help of the chyerti – her demon friends and enemies – in a final attempt to save her family, her country and its people.

Like the first two books, The Winter of the Witch is steeped in Russian mythology and fairy tale. In this book we are reacquainted with characters who appeared earlier in the trilogy and we meet another selection of fascinating beings from Russian myths too. These include the upyr (monstrous vampire-like creatures) and the famous Baba Yaga. Of the other new characters, I was particularly fond of Ded Grib – but will leave you to discover more about him for yourself when you read the book! Vasya also follows a magical pathway through the enchanted realm of Midnight, a journey which provides some of the most thrilling moments in the book. My favourite of the novel’s many threads, though, involves Vasya’s romance with a certain frost demon called Morozko…

The reason I find the relationship between Vasya and Morozko so compelling is precisely because it’s completely unconventional. Morozko is not human and doesn’t always react or behave like a human; to him, Vasya’s actions sometimes seem illogical and difficult to understand – yet they love each other for who they are, and each accepts whatever the other is willing and able to give.

Another aspect of the book (of all three books, actually) that I like is the theme of conflict between old and new as the ancient beliefs and traditions are swept aside by the spread of Christianity. We have seen from the beginning of the trilogy how the power of the chyerti is fading as the people forget the old ways, turning away from their household spirits such as the domovoi and turning instead to men like Konstantin, the Christian priest with whom it is safe to say Vasya has never seen eye to eye. Vasya’s task in this novel is to persuade everyone – chyerti and human, Christian and pagan – to work together to defend Rus’. It will all come to a head at Kulikovo on the Don River, as the opposing armies prepare for a battle which will prove whether or not our heroine has been successful…

This really is a great end to the trilogy; the beautiful, powerful writing took me through a whole range of emotions and I had tears in my eyes at the loss of a favourite character early in the book. I also love the fact that, despite all the fantasy elements, so much of the story has its foundations in Russian history. I’m sorry to have to leave Vasya and her friends behind, but I will look forward to whatever Katherine Arden writes next.

For the Immortal by Emily Hauser

This is the third book in Emily Hauser’s Golden Apple trilogy, which gives a voice to some of the women from Greek mythology. The three books are connected but also work as standalone stories so it is not essential to read them in order. Having enjoyed the first two novels, For the Most Beautiful (the story of Briseis and Krisayis during the Trojan War) and For the Winner (about Atalanta, who joined Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece), I was pleased to be offered the chance to take part in the blog tour for the third and final novel, For the Immortal.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Alexander, the heir of the King of Tiryns, is dying. His sister, Admete, has some knowledge of healing, but her skills alone are not enough to save Alexander; the only possible cure will be found far away in the Garden of the Hesperides. And so Admete persuades her father to let her accompany her friend Alcides on his upcoming journey to the land of the Amazons, where he has been given the task of obtaining the belt of the Amazon queen, Hippolyta – one of twelve labours he must complete if he is to achieve his goal of becoming immortal. Admete hopes that the Amazons will be able to help her find the cure – the golden apple – that she seeks, but she also has another reason of her own for wanting to meet this legendary tribe of female warriors.

For the Immortal is written from the perspectives of both Admete and Hippolyta, alternating between the two. They initially seem like unrelated stories, but after a while they begin to come together very effectively. The two women are very different people, with different backgrounds and ways of life, but they encounter similar obstacles and attitudes as they each try to succeed in a world very much dominated by men. At first I was slightly disappointed by the negative portrayal of the male characters who are central to the novel, but looking back I think it made sense in the context of the story.

As with the first two books in the trilogy, we also spend some time with the gods as they look down on the mortal world, observing, interfering or trying to help, depending on the outcome they are hoping for. I loved this aspect of the book; the conversations between the gods gave me a lot to think about regarding the differences between fate and personal choice, and what it truly means to be immortal.

The novel combines elements of several myths: the Labours of Hercules (you will have guessed that Alcides is another name for Hercules); the story of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons; and the adventures of Theseus, who joins Hercules on his voyage. I was fascinated by Emily Hauser’s notes at the end of the book where she explains the choices she made in deciding which myths and characters to include and how to interpret them – I was particularly interested in what she had to say about Hippolyta and her two sisters. Although I only have quite a basic knowledge of Greek mythology, I’m finding that one of the most intriguing things about it is that there are so many different versions of the myths that no two authors or historians will interpret them in exactly the same way.

I really enjoyed this book; it brings the trilogy to a satisfying close and, although I’ve said that you can certainly read it without having read the first two books, I do recommend reading all three. I think my favourite was the middle one, For the Winner, but I liked them all.

You can find out more about this book by visiting the other stops on the blog tour. Here is the schedule:

Thanks to Transworld for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley and for arranging the tour.

This is also book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Circe by Madeline Miller

It’s been a long wait for Madeline Miller’s second novel (her first, The Song of Achilles, was published in 2011), and now that I’ve read it I’m pleased to say that I thought it was worth waiting for. I enjoyed The Song of Achilles, though maybe not as much as other people seemed to, but I found Circe an even more interesting read with characters and storylines which I personally found much more appealing.

I will start by admitting that before beginning this novel, I knew nothing about the witch Circe other than what I remembered from her appearance in the Odyssey, when Odysseus lands on the island where she lives alone with her lions and wolves, turning men into pigs. My knowledge of Greek mythology is sadly lacking, so I was curious to find out what else her story would involve and how it would be enough to fill a whole book.

The first thing we learn is that Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse. She grows up in the shadow of her seemingly more talented siblings, possessing neither the beauty of her sister Pasiphaë, who goes on to marry King Minos of Crete, nor the magical powers of her brothers Perses and Aeëtes (the future king of Colchis). To make matters worse, she even has the voice of a mortal rather than a goddess. It is only when she is driven by an uncontrollable jealousy to cast a spell on a rival that she discovers she does have a talent for witchcraft after all…but this same action results in her exile to the remote island of Aiaia.

Her new home is lonely but peaceful and Circe occupies herself with taming the wild animals that share her island and learning the properties of the flowers and herbs that grow there. Gradually she becomes aware of the true extent of her abilities as a witch and finds that she is not the failure she has always believed herself to be.

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.

Although Zeus has forbidden her to leave the island, Circe is not entirely isolated and she receives a number of visitors bringing news from the outside world. I was surprised by how many different myths Madeline Miller pulls into the story – myths even I was familiar with, such as Jason and the Golden Fleece, Daedalus and Icarus, the torture of Prometheus, and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. I hadn’t expected to find all of these in a book about Circe (and I’m not sure how much involvement, if any, she has in other versions of these myths), but the way in which they were woven into the novel felt quite natural. The only problem is that with Circe trapped on her island, there’s a sense that most of the action is taking place elsewhere and our heroine is left to rely on information brought by Hermes and her other visitors.

It is not until halfway through the book that Odysseus comes to Aiaia and Circe’s story begins to overlap with the events of the Odyssey. This is another turning point in Circe’s life, as the time she spends with Odysseus leaves her with some important choices to make and carries the novel forward towards its conclusion.

I loved Circe; it’s a beautifully written novel and ideal for readers like myself who only have a basic knowledge of the Greek myths. I felt a stronger connection with Circe herself than I did with Patroclus in The Song of Achilles and for that reason this is my favourite of the two books, but I do think if you enjoy one of them you’ll probably enjoy the other.

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.