So, I’m currently travelling up north in the Kitsap Peninsula for my nephew’s graduation (#GoCKCougars). Over dinner, my older, non-graduating nephew mentioned that he’d recently read Circe and loved it. He may have even used the word “exquisite” (he was not incorrect). If you haven’t read it, you totally should… but it was a super fun conversation for me because I’d already decided I was going to write a post about Greek mythology retellings and the micro-genre that seems to have been spawned by the popularity of Circe. So, the conversation I had with him over dinner drove how this post evolved. In fact, my desire to give him some other epic retellings in addition to giving him more Greek mythology retellings encouraged the expansion of the accompanying list (see below) to include retellings of: The Ramayana, The Eddas, and Beowulf. Pull up a chair and read on… it’ll be EPIC!
Many of these books are interesting in how they work to breathe life into the female characters. A Thousand Ships puts lots of different characters’ points of view front and center, though POV frequently returns to Penelope as she waits with increasing impatience (and sarcasm) for Odysseus to get home already. Meanwhile Pat Barker’s grim duet, which centers Briseis (who within the context of The Iliad is primarily known for being the slave at the center of the rift between Achilles and Agamemnon) brings to life the very difficult experiences of the women who lived in the Greek camp throughout the Trojan war. Jennifer Saint’s most recent novel, Elektra, is told in shifting points of view, giving Elektra, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra voice to tell their stories. Behind all of these novels are familiar stories made fresh with new perspectives and more fully explained motivations. Often behaviors that appear heroic in the source material seem less so when seen through this lens. How petty do Agamemnon and Achilles seem over the whole Briseis thing? Very. How bored with Odysseus’ extracurricular antics is Penelope? Again, very.
If you, like I, have already read all the recent Greek mythology books, it might be time to branch out! Here are some ideas:
Publishers appear to have been willing to test whether the Circe formula will work with epics from non-Greek sources. Last year, The Witch’s Heart received some attention. This draws from Norse source material, telling the story of Angrboda and her relationship with Loki. Then, this year, came Kaikeyi. In this novel, Vaishnavi Patel uses the Ramayana as her source material, bringing to life the story of Rama and Sita, except from the point of view of one of the villains of the piece: Rama’s step mother, Kaikeyi. In Ms. Patel’s hands, Kaikeyi becomes a strong leader doing whatever she can to do what is in the best interest of her country. No. You do not have to read the Ramayana to “get” this book. I haven’t. But now I want to understand fully how the author adapted the original story. So I probably will read it.
What my experience with Kaikeyi really reinforced for me, though, was that, while most folks who live in Southern Oregon are more familiar with the ancient epics from Europe, there are epic tales from all over the world. Not all of these are available at the library, and very few have been given the female POV update. This makes me hope that more authors from these cultures will try to tackle these rich folklore traditions.
As a special bonus, if retellings aren’t your jam but Greek mythology is, there are a few recent thrillers that have a lot of mythology woven throughout. If gothic, dark academia is more your thing, then look no further than Madam or The Maidens.
I hope that some of these titles will tempt you to read further… and if you’d prefer to read the original source material, we have an array of translations of these works for you to choose from as well!