House of Odysseus by Claire North fantasy book reviewsHouse of Odysseus by Claire North fantasy book reviewsHouse of Odysseus by Claire North

Claire North’s THE SONGS OF PENELOPE trilogy of Greek reworkings offers up three queens (Clytemnestra, Helen, and Penelope) and three goddesses (Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena). The first book, Ithaca, centered on Penelope and Clytemnestra, and was narrated by Hera in a fiercely, sharply wry voice. House of Odysseus (2023) picks up shortly after the close of book one and (wholly unnecessary spoiler alert for the old as dirt storyline) the death of Clytemnestra at her son Orestes’ hands. Here the focus remains on Penelope, while Helen (and to a lesser extent Electra) become the other centers of attention. The narrator, meanwhile, shifts from Hera to Aphrodite, who has her own inimitable style. For the most part, House of Odysseus maintains the high quality of its predecessor and leaves me eager for the final book in the series.

Penelope remains bedeviled by the plague of suitors inhabiting her home, but this soon becomes the least of her problems. First, Electra arrives on Ithaca with a possibly mad/possibly poisoned Orestes in tow. While the reader gets to see what Orestes sees — the maddening Furies punishing him for killing his own mother — the characters do not, and so they are left with a screaming mess of a supposed king. Bad enough for Orestes and his sister, but a crazed king is a short-lived king, especially with their uncle Menelaus seeking them out to offer his “assistance”, which in reality means showing the world Orestes is crazy (Electra has so far managed to keep it a secret), killing him, and declaring himself King of all the Greeks. Electra and Orestes have barely arrived and been secreted away before Menelaus himself shows up and, since none of Ithaca’s men have returned from Troy, he basically conquerors the island with a few ‘soldiers and his charming but oh so menacing “I’m here to help” façade. He’s also brought along his famous wife, though she’s a bit more of a ditz and a drunk than her legendary persona. All of which leaves Penelope in a terrible position, one made even worse when a shocking murder takes place within her palace. To save her island, and herself, she has to solve the murder, cure Orestes, keep Orestes (sane or not) out of the hands of Menelaus, somehow get Menelaus off her island, find a traitor in their midst, and of course, deal with the suitors.

Luckily, as crafted by North, she is up to the job, Penelope remains the heart and mind of this trilogy, a true queen who finds ways to wield power despite all the constraints and strictures that seek to prevent her from doing so. Smart, wise, cautious, and pragmatic, she’s a fantastic creation, an older dignified woman who doesn’t need to be sassy or spunky, doesn’t need to bandy repartee. She thinks, she acts, she fears, she both bends and stands firm, she is defiant but not to the point of inanity. It’s a truly mature portrayal. And also a multi-faceted one. In book one, we see Penelope the Queen but also Penelope the mother thanks to the presence of her son Telemachus. Here, Telemachus is gone, off to search for his long-missing father, and the grief of her son’s absence still takes it toll on Penelope. But beyond that, we also see Penelope the woman, as one of the suitors becomes a true ally and friend, with the potential of even more, though I won’t say where that goes.

With Penelope the constant, Helen is the new addition and unfortunately, she can’t match up with her predecessor Clytemnestra from the first book (admittedly a tough bar to match). Helen has her moments, particularly in the latter part of the novel, but it’s pretty easy to see early on what North is doing with her character, which not only makes her storyline predictable but also means the reader has to sit through a seemingly weak character’s annoying tics and flaws while impatiently waiting for the inevitable shift. Fortunately, Helen’s husband Menelaus has more than enough presence, albeit a malevolent one, for both of them, He’s unnervingly compelling, charming yet chilling, and watching him and Penelope match wits is wonderful.

Meanwhile, the shift in narrative voice from Hera to Aphrodite loses some bite, loses some of that sharply incisive commentary Hera was so good at. But Aphrodite, unsurprisingly, has her own charms, it’s a lighter touch and adds some needed humor to a pretty dark, tense storyline. But the best part is her wide ranging musings in the nature of love in all its forms, not just the sexual. Her commentary on her sisters Athena and Artemis is particularly moving and thought-provoking. As a narrator, she doesn’t quite have the impact, the immediate impact of Hera, but she winds her way into your mind and lingers there.

My favorite Greek reimaginings remain the works by Madeleine Miller and Pat Barker, but North’s two books are alone in my “second tier” of such works, with not quite the sweeping power and lyrical grace of those other two but still better than the number of others I’ve read. Given what’s come so far, I have no doubt the next book will cement that placement, and given how this one ends, I’m especially looking forward to its arrival. Strongly recommended.

Published in August 2023. On the isle of Ithaca, queen Penelope maintains a delicate balance of power. Many years ago, her husband Odysseus sailed to war with Troy and never came home. In his absence, Penelope uses all her cunning to keep the peace—a peace that is shattered by the return of Orestes, King of Mycenae, and his sister Elektra. Orestes’ hands are stained with his mother’s blood. Not so long ago, the son of Agamemnon took Queen Clytemnestra’s life on Ithaca’s sands. Now, wracked with guilt, he is slowly losing his mind. But a king cannot be seen to be weak, and Elektra has brought him to Ithaca to keep him safe from the ambitious men of Mycenae. Penelope knows destruction will follow in his wake as surely as the furies circle him. His uncle Menelaus, the battle-hungry king of Sparta, longs for Orestes’ throne—and if he can seize it, no one will be safe from his violent whims. Trapped between two mad kings, Penelope fights to keep her home from being crushed by a war that stretches from Mycenae and Sparta to the summit of Mount Olympus itself. Her only allies are Elektra, desperate to protect her brother, and Helen of Troy, Menelaus’ wife. And watching over them all is the goddess Aphrodite, who has plans of her own. Each woman has a secret. And their secrets will shape the world.

Author

  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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