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.

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.

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser

For the Most Beautiful “For the most beautiful”. These are the words inscribed on a golden apple presented by Paris, Prince of Troy, to the goddess Aphrodite whom he has chosen over her rivals, Hera and Athena. In return, the goddess rewards Paris with Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world – but unfortunately, Helen is already married. Not surprisingly, her husband, Menelaus, is enraged by the theft of his wife and sends the mighty armies of Greece, led by his brother King Agamemnon, to the shores of Troy to bring her back.

The story of the Trojan War is one that has been told many times before and with which a lot of readers will already be familiar before picking up Emily Hauser’s debut novel, For the Most Beautiful. However, this book retells the story from a feminine perspective and focuses on two female characters – Krisayis and Briseis – who both have important roles to play yet have not been given much attention in other versions such as Homer’s Iliad.

Krisayis (whose name is usually spelled Chryseis) is the daughter of a Trojan priest and companion to Cassandra, a princess of Troy. As the novel begins, we learn that Krisayis is in love with Cassandra’s brother, Troilus, and that, much against her wishes, she is about to become a priestess devoted to the god Apulunas. Our other main character, Briseis, is a princess of Lyrnessus who has unexpectedly found love with her husband Mynes, despite growing up under the shadow of a prophecy which seemed to rule out the possibility of happiness. With the onset of war, the lives of both young women are thrown into turmoil; their paths cross while held captive in the Greek camp, but will they be able to change fate and save Troy?

I found For the Most Beautiful a very enjoyable read. I think it was probably aimed at a younger audience but there was enough depth to keep an adult reader happy too. Having only read two or three other novels about Troy (including Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire) I found that while I knew the basic outline of the story, a lot of it was new to me and the approach the author took made it feel fresh and original. It was interesting to see how Emily Hauser interpreted the characters of not just Krisayis and Briseis but also Achilles, Patroclus, Paris, Hector, Cassandra and others.

The stories of our two heroines unfold in alternating chapters and I thought these sections of the book were well written and emotionally engaging (both Briseis and Krisayis suffer the death of a loved one and then face further ordeals and difficult decisions after their capture by the Greeks). However, these chapters are interspersed with short scenes in which we witness the gods on their mountain observing and manipulating the lives of the mortals below – and this is the one aspect of the book which really didn’t work for me. The writing style in these sections is quite different – the language feels much more modern and the tense changes from past to present – and the gods come across as bored, shallow and petulant. I think I can see what the author was trying to do here and I’m sure other readers will enjoy the light-hearted, comedy feel of these scenes, but it just made me impatient to get back to Briseis and Krisayis!

After finishing this book, I was pleased to discover that it’s the start of a new Golden Apple trilogy. Greek mythology is not a subject that particularly interests me, but I was still captivated by For the Most Beautiful and am looking forward to reading another two books by Emily Hauser.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.

Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

perf6.000x9.000.indd In this wonderful combination of historical fiction and Greek mythology, Judith Starkston reimagines events from the Iliad, telling the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Briseis, a woman who plays an important role in Homer’s epic despite being only briefly mentioned. In Hand of Fire, Briseis is finally given the attention she deserves.

At the beginning of the novel, Briseis is a young priestess of the healing goddess Kamrusepa, but is sadly unable to prevent her own mother from dying. There is more sadness to follow for Briseis when she is married off to Mynes, a prince of Lyrnessos, and finds him to be a violent and abusive man. Sustained by the compassion of her elderly nurse, Eurome, and by visions of the handsome, half-immortal Greek warrior, Achilles, the turning point comes when the city of Lyrnessos falls to the Greek army and Briseis is taken captive. How can she reconcile her love for Achilles with her new position as slave?

Hand of Fire surprised me; I really didn’t expect to enjoy it quite as much as I did. I love reading historical fiction but tend not to choose books set in the ancient world. I often find that I have trouble identifying with the characters – I sometimes feel that even the non-mythological ones seem more like mythological beings than real people. That was not a problem here: this is a very human story with characters I could love and care about. Briseis herself is a great protagonist and I liked her from the beginning. She has great strength and resilience, all the more impressive when you consider everything she has to endure – the loss of her mother, marriage to a man who treats her badly, personal tragedy in the face of war, life as a captive slave, and her tumultuous relationship with Achilles.

Achilles is more difficult to understand. His personality is complex and conflicted; in battle he is a fierce, mighty warrior gripped by an unstoppable rage, but when he is alone with Briseis we see the gentler, more sensitive side of his nature. Of the secondary characters, there are two in particular that I found very well developed and memorable. One is Eurome, Briseis’ elderly maid, a caring, warm-hearted person and a devoted friend Briseis can trust and rely upon. The other is Patroklos, the beloved companion of Achilles, the only person apart from Briseis who is able to quell his rage.

This is a novel that has been thoroughly researched, which is evident from Judith Starkston’s author’s note in which she describes her reasons for writing this story, the things she discovered during the writing process and the decisions she needed to make. She does an excellent job of drawing on her knowledge of the period to create a convincing picture of what life may have been like for a woman who lived during the Bronze Age. The history of medicine is something I’ve always found very interesting, so I enjoyed the parts of the book that describe Briseis’ work as a healer (which consists mainly of using herbs and magical rituals as unlike her brother, Iatros, she is unable to study to be a physician).

Even for a reader like myself who only has a limited knowledge of Ancient Greece and hasn’t actually read the Iliad, I found this novel very accessible and easy to follow. I appreciated the fact that the author takes the time to flesh out the background to the story and doesn’t just assume that every reader will be familiar with the time period and the mythology. I was also pleased to find that there’s not too much emphasis on the battle scenes! This is Briseis’ story and the focus is on her personal life and on her relationships with Achilles, Mynes and the others. I really enjoyed spending time in her world and will be looking out for more novels from Judith Starkston in the future.

Hand of Fire tour graphic I read Hand of Fire as part of a Fireship Press Virtual Book Tour. You can find the tour schedule here.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Iliad, told from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend and lover. Patroclus, the son of Menoetius, is only a child when he is exiled and sent to Phthia to live with King Peleus and his son, Achilles. Achilles is destined to become the greatest warrior of his generation and when he goes to Mount Pelion to receive training from the centaur, Chiron, Patroclus joins him there. As the years go by the bond between Achilles and Patroclus strengthens and their friendship develops into love, despite the attempts of Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, to separate them.

The Trojan War begins when Helen, the wife of Menelaus of Sparta, is abducted by Paris of Troy. Both Achilles and Patroclus are part of the Greek army who set out to defeat the Trojans and return Helen to her husband. I’ll stop there because if you already know the story, you’ll know what happens to Patroclus and Achilles – and if you don’t, then I won’t spoil it for you.

I used to be fascinated by Greek mythology as a child but as the years have gone by I’ve read very little on the subject, so I began this book hoping that it would be good enough to reawaken my interest in it. I haven’t read The Iliad and could only remember a few basic facts about the Trojan War that I learned at school, so I was worried I might find it difficult to follow the plot. Well, this wasn’t a problem because Madeline Miller made it all very accessible and understandable. I was surprised to find that I actually knew more than I thought I did and recognised the names of a lot of the heroes and gods who appeared in the novel. But although the Trojan War and the events leading up to it are an important part of the story, the real focus is on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Their love story was really beautifully written and filled with emotion and although the second half of the book didn’t sustain my interest as well as the first half did, I thought the final few chapters were particularly moving.

Achilles and Patroclus each have qualities that the other comes to value and admire. Achilles is handsome, talented and brave; Patroclus is quiet and loving. They both also have flaws: Patroclus often feels insecure while Achilles is sometimes too proud. It’s perhaps because they’re so different that they complement each other so well. I thought writing from the viewpoint of Patroclus was a good choice because it allowed us to see Achilles through the eyes of someone who loved him and also because, as a sensitive and observant narrator, he could give us interesting insights into the other characters as he met each of them for the first time, including Agamemnon, Briseis, Thetis, Ajax and my favourite, Odysseus.

I would recommend this novel to people like myself who only have a basic knowledge of Greek mythology (or none at all) as well as people who have already read The Iliad and are much more familiar with the story than I am. The Song of Achilles has something to offer both groups of readers. I’m still not sure that this is a subject I’m ever going to be passionately interested in, but after reading this book I do feel more enthusiastic about reading other novels based on Greek mythology.

The Song of Achilles was the winner of this year’s Orange Prize. I haven’t read any of the others on the shortlist because none of them really appealed to me, but having read this one I’m sure it was a deserving winner.