Tuesday 31 August 2021


7 powerful retellings of classic Greek myths that should be on everyone's to-read list

Female characters in Greek mythology are unsung heroes who very rarely get appreciated for their impact on the myths; they're witches to be banished, prizes to be handed out like gold and cattle, and they lead male protagonists astray. It's a narrative that has become tiring and outdated and I'm glad that there are some excellent authors out there that are re-envisioning these ancient tales to put the women centre stage, giving them a chance to be the heroes of their own stories. Today I'm sharing four of my favourite retellings of Greek myths I've read to date – and three that are still on my to-read list. 

Circe by Madeline Miller
Published in the U.K. by Bloomsbury (2018)

This is by far my favourite Greek retelling I've read to date, and the one that has singlehandedly created my obsession with this sub-genre. In this book, Madeline Miller has taken an under-appreciated female character from Greek mythology – who traditionally only has a bit part in the store of male "heroes" such as Odysseus – and has given her the rightful centre stage to let her fascinating and empowering story shine. I knew very little about Circe before going into this novel, which is shameful considering how she ties into so many other stories I know far better. Madeline Miller has faced this injustice head-on by creating a rich story and world that features an inspiring and strong female protagonist. Circe is a kick-ass character and I loved how she took her faith into her own hands in this reimagining. More of this please! ★★★★★

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
Published in the U.K. by Wildfire (part of Headline Publishing Group) (2021)

We are all familiar with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. In fact, I even vaguely remembered the red thread that helped this Greek hero find his way out of the famous Labyrinth after killing the half-man-half-bull Cretan creature. However, I didn't remember that it was the Minotaur's half sister, and daughter to the Cretan King Minos, Ariadne, that provided Theseus with his red ball of thread. Or even that she had a sister, Phaedra, who had a powerful story of her own to tell. Jennifer Saint delves into the lives of these two women in her novel and gives them much more depth than the original Greek stories ever did. A lot of what these characters did in the ancient tales seems unfathomable to modern readers, yet Saint's detailed back story for both makes them far more interesting and relatable – and instead of judging their choices, it's impossible to not feel compassion and empathy for the sisters and the impossible situations they've been put in by the Gods and the "heroes". ★★★★★

Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood
Published in the U.K. by Hodder & Stoughton by (2021)

Heywood’s novel takes readers on an insightful journey from Helen of Sparta's childhood to her marriage to Menelaos to her love affair with Paris, and – ultimately – to the war between the Trojans and the Spartans. Reading about Helen growing up alongside her sister Klytemnestra, makes her feel much more real and vulnerable, rather than a figurehead that involuntarily sparked a war. And set amongst the customs and behaviours of ancient Greece, where girls are married off to strangers as young teenagers, slaves roam the palaces to serve the royals, and girls are stolen from their rightful homes to become concubines, it paints an enlightening picture of being a woman during that time. And even after turning the final page, these two incredible characters didn’t leave me. I ended up going to Wikipedia to read up on how their lives supposedly continued where the novel finished. And when a book can keep you so hooked that even after finishing it, it doesn’t let you go – you know it’s a good one. (full review) ★★★★1/2

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Published in the U.K. by Penguin Books (2018)

We all know Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, Priam, Agamemnon, Patroclus, Ajax, and Paris. The male figureheads on either side of the Trojan War. Their names cemented into history. And yet there were, once again, many women on the sidelines. Every time a city was taken, men were murdered and women were kidnapped, raped, and taken back to the camps to serve their enemies. One of them is Briseis; Achilles' prize after conquering her city and killing her father and brothers. She eventually grows close to Achilles, but how can that be when he murdered her family and took her away from everything she knew and love? The Silence of the Girls is more of a slow-burn than the more action-packed retellings I've read so far, but this gives the reader time to really get to know Briseis, as well as Achilles and Patroclus in particular, and come to understand her change in allegiance over time; making the best of the terrible situation she's been put in. While this was perhaps my least favourite Greek retelling I've read to date, it was still far more engrossing and fascinating than many other books I've read this year – and I cannot wait to read the sequel, The Women of Troy. ★★★★

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published in the U.K. by Bloomsbury (2011)

"Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear." This book came out back in 2011 and I cannot believe I've not read it yet! A 10-year anniversary collector's edition will be published this week, and I cannot wait to get that one so I can finally read the book that launched a thousand retellings.

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker
Published in the U.K. by Penguin Books (2021)

"Troy has fallen. The Greeks have won their bitter war. They can return home victors, loaded with their spoils: their stolen gold, stolen weapons, stolen women. All they need is a good wind to lift their sails. But the wind does not come. The gods have been offended – the body of Priam lies desecrated, unburied – and so the victors remain in limbo, camped in the shadow of the city they destroyed, pacing at the edge of an unobliging sea. Largely unnoticed by her squabbling captors, Briseis remains in the Greek encampment. She forges alliances where she can – with young, dangerously naive Amina, with defiant, aged Hecuba, with Calchus, the disgraced priest – and begins to see the path to a kind of revenge. Briseis has survived the Trojan War, but peacetime may turn out to be even more dangerous..."

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Published in the U.K. by Pan Macmillan (2019)

"This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash. The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all."

Are there any other retellings of Greek myths you'd recommend? Leave your recommendations in the comments below!

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