Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.
As Penelope hosts her suitors by day and unpicks her weaving by night, life on Ithaca must go on. With the working age men gone to war, the Queen of Ithaca has done her best to keep trade going and crops growing, even if she can’t be seen to be doing such things. But the suitors are growing inpatient and raids on the island increasing.
We all know the story of how Odysseus’s wife secretly unpicks her weaving in order to put off marrying a new husband, but Claire North’s story delves into the practicalities of Penelope putting off the suitors for so long. This story isn’t framed as undying loyalty or love to her husband, she can’t risk choosing one powerful man and offending another, and she’s sure whoever she chooses, her son will not survive it.
This is told from the point of view of Hera, goddess of wives, and of queens, who has little patience for mortal men… or her family. She’s trying not to draw the attention of Zeus or Athena, lying low while watching Penelope, one of the last queens of Greece. I loved her couldn’t care less attitude and snarky comments, slowly coming round to care for the queen who is more than anyone else assumes. Hera as a narrator was a great choice which sets this apart from many of the other Greek myth retellings we’ve been served in recent years.
Athena sits and hoots like an absolute bloody idiot, an owl upon the blackened branch of an ancient withered tree. Hoot bloody hoot she goes, blinking reflective darkness, as if I wouldn’t see her, as if I can’t always see through her pitiful disguises.
The book is the start of a trilogy and it doesn’t cover all the time that the men of Ithaca have been absent. Many years have passed, Telemachus is a teenager and Penelope has spent the land’s resources on hosting the suitors who are now restless. When a body is found with a recognisable ring on it, attention is turned to Ithaca and difficult choices must be made.
Meanwhile, since the men are either too young or too old to protect the island, the women secretly train. As Hera frequently points out, the poets are not interested in the lives of women, so there are plenty of gaps in the epics to be filled in with behind the scenes shenanigans, without having to interfere with the original timelines.
That was when I knew I loved Penelope. Of all the queens in Greece, I had not thought I could love one who seemed so meek and who bowed so deep to the inclinations of men. I was wrong.
I would say if you are not familiar with the Odyssey and are picking this up because it’s written by Claire North, you might find it hard keeping up with who’s who. There are a lot of characters, some with similar names, and some big names from the Greek Myth Universe where their backstory is obvious if you’re familiar. I think this does a reasonable job laying out the important bits, but there might be a lot to take in.
“Medon, forgive me. I find myself overcome with womanly weakness and must retire.”
“I have always admired the exquisite timing of your weaknesses, my lady.”
Ithaca is published by Orbit and will be available in hardback, ebook and audiobook editions from 8th September 2022. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
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