Book Review

Phaedra

Phaedra

  • Author: Laura Shepperson
  • Genre: Fantasy/Mythology Retelling
  • Publication Date: January 10, 2023
  • Publisher: Alcove Press

Thank you to NetGalley and Alcove Press for providing me with an ARC or this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: blood, gore, murder, suicide, rape

Debut novelist Laura Shepperson offers a powerful feminist retelling of Phaedra and her unyielding quest for justice, perfect for fans of Madeline Miller and Natalie Haynes.

Phaedra has been cast to the side all her life: daughter of an adulteress, sister of a monster, and now unwilling bride to the much-older, power-hungry Theseus. Young, naïve, and idealistic, she has accepted her lot in life, resigned to existing under the sinister weight of Theseus’s control and the constant watchful eye of her handsome stepson Hippolytus.

When supposedly pious Hippolytus assaults her, Phaedra’s world is darkened in the face of untouchable, prideful power. In the face of injustice, Phaedra refuses to remain quiet any longer: such an awful truth demands to be brought to light. When Phaedra publicly accuses Hippolytus of rape, she sparks an overdue reckoning.

The men of Athens gather to determine the truth. Meanwhile, the women of the city, who have no vote, are gathering in the shadows. The women know truth is a slippery thing in the hands of men. There are two sides to every story, and theirs has gone unheard. Until now.

Timely, unflinching, and transportive, Laura Shepperson’s Phaedra carves open long-accepted wounds to give voice to one of the most maligned figures of mythology and offers a stunning story of how truth bends under the weight of patriarchy but can be broken open by the force of one woman’s bravery.

In the last few years, I have read some incredible mythology retellings, and they’ve become kind of irresistible to me. I’m not very well versed in Greek mythology, but I’m always intrigued in learning more about them, and seeing differing views on stories that have been accepted for many years, usually placing the males in the story in the forefront and in the best possible light. However, in recent years, retellings have changed the focus of the stories to place the women in the center and tell their stories, rather than that of the men.

While I’m not familiar with Phaedra’s story, I did check it out quickly before starting the story. All versions seem to paint her as a seductress, and fault her for the events of the story. However, this book flips the script and makes her an innocent victim, not at fault for the events, other than pushing for justice for herself and the other innocent victims in the castle.

We get a lot of different POVs—various women throughout the story, and at least one male character. They definitely provided a good perspective to the story, but all of the viewpoints had a major failing. Mainly, that they all sounded the same. It was impossible to differentiate who was speaking, because all of the different characters had the same voice, same speech patterns, same patterns of thought, despite the differences in class, place of upbringing, gender, etc. Without the name at the beginning of the chapter, I couldn’t figure out who was narrating.

It brings out a lot of the discussion surrounding consent, women’s rights, and a rape trial, as well as the politics involved in changing a monarchy to a democracy and the pushback involved, but there was a lot going on in the story. There were family dynamics discussed on both sides—for Theseus and Phaedra, and the massive dysfunction that is rife in Greek mythology families. 

However, we never really get to know the characters in depth. Phaedra is never really portrayed as anything more than naïve. We barely get to know Theseus at all, and the most we learn about Hippolytus is that he’s devoted to horses and Artemis. As for the rest of the characters, we learn even less about them. I found it endlessly frustrating, and while the story was intriguing, I would have liked to get to know the characters in greater depth. Overall, this was an interesting read, but it didn’t quite meet the high bar that was set for mythology retellings that I’ve come to expect.

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