- Author: Claire North
- Genre: Fantasy (Greek Mythology)
- Publication Date: September 6, 2022
- Publisher: Orbit
- Series: Penelope #1
Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
CONTENT WARNING: rape, gore, violence, murder, violence
‘The greatest power we woman can own, is that we take in secret . . . ‘
Seventeen years ago, king Odysseus sailed to war with Troy, taking with him every man of fighting age from the island of Ithaca. None of them have returned, and the women have been left behind to run the kingdom.
Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. Whilst he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that husband is dead, and suitors are starting to knock at her door . . .
But no one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’ empty throne – not yet. Between Penelope’s many suitors, a cold war of dubious alliances and hidden knives reigns, as everyone waits for the balance of power to tip one way or another. If Penelope chooses one from amongst them, it will plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war. Only through cunning and her spy network of maids can she maintain the delicate balance of power needed for the kingdom to survive.
On Ithaca, everyone watches everyone else, and there is no corner of the palace where intrigue does not reign . . .
I’ve kind of been on a Greek myth retelling kick lately, and I figured I’d give this one a shot, especially since I don’t know too much about Penelope. My knowledge of her is basically that she waited around forever for her husband to come home from the Trojan war and had to use her brain to outsmart a bunch of suitors vying for her hand.
This book is narrated in the snarky voice of Hera, goddess and wife of Zeus. She is jaded, sarcastic, and cynical, and she’s limited in what she’s able to do, not really allowed to interfere too much. She sums up the situation of the three queens of Greece (Penelope, Helen, and Clytemnestra) as:
“Once upon a time, there were three queens in Greece. One was chaste and pure, one a temptress whore, one a murderous hag.”
Now, my first thought was, why the hell wouldn’t Penelope just kick these loser suitors out of her house? But it quickly becomes clear that she’s caught up in a web of restrictions based on the rules of hospitality and a number of pressures from the various competing suitors, as well as worrying about her son, who would be viewed as a potential threat:
“‘It’s been eight years since Troy. I know it’ll be a disaster, I know, but if marrying one of them is less of a disaster than the alternative…’ ‘A little civil war, some light carnage now to put off something worse later?’”
She’s also trapped by gender roles that limit what women are allowed to do. Even a queen isn’t truly free, even in the absence of her husband. Every outcome for a woman in that era seemed to be bad, whether she was a slave or a queen:
“‘The scraps of freedom that we have are to pick between two poisons, to make the least bad decision we can, knowing that there is no outcome that will not leave us bruised, bloody on the floor.’”
While I thought that the story was mainly going to focus on Penelope, it became apparent that she’s more of an afterthought to Hera, and that Clytemnestra is her favorite. And Clytemnestra does show up and complicate things. For such a small, isolated island, there’s actually a lot going on, and the story still managed to be relatively slow. It’s a highly character-driven story, and felt like it meandered through a series of events. I found it dragging on, and I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more if it was a hundred or more pages shorter. I did like the focus on the women, who are often overlooked in traditional Greek mythology, and wind up simply being a side note. It was interesting to see more about what was going on in Penelope’s life while her husband was living it up with Calypso, and to see that she wasn’t just a pretty face, but actually had a very smart mind to go with it.
Categories: Book Review