books, reviews

Book Review: Ithaca – Claire North

This is the story of Penelope of Ithaca, famed wife of Odysseus, as it has never been told before. Beyond Ithaca’s shores, the whims of gods dictate the wars of men. But on the isle, it is the choices of the abandoned women—and their goddesses—that will change the course of the world.

“North brings a powerful, fresh, and unflinching voice to ancient myth. Breathtaking.” Jennifer Saint, author of AriadneSeventeen 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 has returned, and the women of Ithaca have been left behind to run the kingdom.

Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. While he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that her husband is dead, and suitors are beginning to knock at her door. 

No one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’ empty throne—not yet. But everyone waits for the balance of power to tip, and Penelope knows that any choice she makes could plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war. Only through cunning, wit, and her trusted circle of maids, can she maintain the tenuous peace needed for the kingdom to survive.

From the multi-award-winning author Claire North comes a daring reimagining that breathes life into ancient myth and gives voice to the women who stand defiant in a world ruled by ruthless men. It’s time for the women of Ithaca to tell their tale . . .

My thoughts: having spent large chunks of my life reading and studying The Iliad and The Odyssey (sometimes in the original Greek, headache inducing as that was) I feel very familiar with the characters. I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which also tells some of Penelope’s story, but in a different way to this book.

Penelope has long been seen as the ultimate faithful wife, staving off an army of suitors, carefully unraveling her weaving by night to prolong her ability to avoid remarriage – convinced that nothing will stop clever Odysseus from coming home.

This book gives her new agency, gives her back her intelligence and character, fills her out so she’s no longer simply “the good wife” of myth. She’s a queen, a daughter of Sparta, her mother was a naiad (a water sprite) and she is smart and cunning. She keeps her kingdom afloat, trades wisely and employs her own spy mistress and retinue of loyal and trusted women around her. Men expect to be mute, as she is in The Odyssey, but here, with her women, she speaks.

She tries to aid her cousin Clytemnestra (sister of Helen, married to Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, the reason for the whole Trojan war), scorned and furious wife of Agamemnon, hunted by her own children Elektra and Orestes (for their fates, try the Greek plays the Orestaia and Elektra – it doesn’t end well) for murdering their father in revenge over the death of their daughter Iphigenia (sacrificed at the beginning of The Iliad). Much of Greek myth is tragedy and very messy, the whole of Agamemnon’s family illustrates that very clearly.

She must also defend against raiders, dressed as Illyrians (I think from what is now Italy, if I remember my ancient geography correctly), but behaving more like Greeks. Secretly she gathers a fighting force of women, taught by a Scythian female warrior.

Narrated by Hera, Queen of the gods, goddess of women and childbirth, constantly at odds with her sprawling and complicated family, fascinated by Penelope, determined to whisper in a few ears and aid this human woman, wife to Athena’s favoured hero, to give her wisdom and support as she steers her court through the long years of Odysseus’ absence and the constant, irritating presence of the infamous suitors, who by Greek rules of hospitality must be catered for every day and night.

A clever, beguiling and intelligent retelling of one of the oldest pieces of Western literature, breathing new life into a far more complex woman than that old myth would have you believe.

Thank you to Orbit and Nazia for my finished copy of this beautiful book.

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