Medusa’s Sisters by Lauren J.A. Bear
Every now and then my reads fall into a pattern, the most recent being a trio of reimaginings of Greek tales. Medusa’s Sisters, by Lauren J.A. Bear falls in between the other two in terms of the reading experience, with engaging characters, good narrative voices, a moving close, and a nice refocusing of the ancient story of Medusa and Perseus (rather than of Perseus and Medusa).
Bear begins, well, at the beginning (after an excellent opening that gives us right away the classic Perseus-Kills-Medusa moment, though she paints it in less than heroic fashion), with the birth of Medusa and her siblings Stheno and Euryale. For various reasons, Medusa is the only one of the trio who end up mortal, a difference that will loom large throughout the novel. Bear fills in the early details and family relationships, which in most versions are either wholly ignored or appear as a charted family tree. The story really picks up with the advent of the Olympians and their domineering, mercurial, volatile manner.
The three sisters end up entangled in the actions and machinations of both the gods and the relatively newborn human race. Medusa in particular is fascinated by humans. Euryale, meanwhile, is more captivated by the god Poseidon, who makes clear his interest in her, though she fails to see just how dangerous such an interest can be, despite all the lessons she could have taken from the human lovers the gods take (“lover” of course often being a warped euphemism for “rape victim”). Including a lesson they all directly witness as they befriend the princess Semele, who enters into an affair with Zeus that ends (spoiler alert for the millennial-old story) with her incinerated when she is tricked into asking him to reveal his true self to her. Stheno is the most reserved, least confident of the three sisters, and also the one who worries the most about the others and who often steps in to play peacemaker.
Plot-wise, the story follows the three through their early years, then as they become guests/friends of Semele and suffer the trauma of her death. Afterward they visit Athens where Euryale sets out to learn the “ways of love” in a brothel so as to better catch/maintain Poseidon’s interest, Stheno becomes more self-confident, and Medusa starts spending a lot of time at the temple of Athena. Eventually it all comes crashing down as Medusa suffers a horrific violation, and then Athena curses all three sisters such that Medusa becomes the “snake-haired monster” known to most people. Exiled to a small island, the three eke out an existence there but of course, any potential happiness is cut short by the appearance of “the hero” Perseus, who cuts off Medusa’s head and flies off with it. The story continues past that point, but as much of this is original to Bear, I won’t go into detail so as to avoid spoilers.
Structurally, the narrative is split between a first-person point-of-view from Stheno and a third-person limited point of view from Euryale’s perspective. The downside to this is Medusa is less fleshed out, seen solely through her sister’s biased eyes, and she remains a bit distant as a character, which does somewhat lessen the impact of what happens to her. On the other hand, the book is entitled Medusa’s Sisters, so the choice of POVs makes perfect sense. The two sisters have different outlooks on life, different goals, different desires and fears, different attitudes toward Medusa and the gods, and thus the combination of POVs does an excellent job in creating a multi-faceted narration.
Given two female narrators, and other major (Medusa, Semele) and minor characters (Leto, Pandora, and others) who are also female, the book as one would expect takes a far less male-centric stance toward the Greek myths. At the very start, rather than the courageous monster-slayer, we get a Perseus who throws up at:
…the very wrongness of what he did. Perseus slaughtered a sleeping woman. An unarmed, innocuous stranger to him and his people … And she was pregnant.
Hardly the stuff of legends. Time and again we see men attempt and often succeed in dominating women, violating them, raping them. Time and again our narrators note the way the poets (you can almost hear the sneer when they use that word) erase the women in the stories. As with the tale of Zeus and Danae:
Zeus transformed himself into a golden rain and descended into Danae’s chamber … Did she welcome the rain … Dance in the puddles? When she saw the wonder for what it was, a violation, did she rage?… I’m sure no poet thought to ask her.
The mothers must survive in a world where men and god — and men who think they’re gods — limit their choices … To have choices is to have power. Most women have neither.
The narration isn’t just a champion of women, though. The toxic concept of male heroism and need for dominance is also viewed through the lens of monsters and non-monsters. As Stheno notes:
We had entered the age of heroes, and we were beasts … Medusa was the opening attack in a losing battle. All of Echidna’s children would be sacrificed to humans and demigods on quests for notoriety … Moral men who would write their names in the viscera of Echidna’s slaughtered offspring … For what? For a story. For a song.
A final, more intimate focus is the relationship between sisters which is portrayed in ways that feel wholly natural and realistic, with all the attendant joys and jealousies, pride and singular envy, protectiveness, and pettiness (or so I assume, being male and having only one sister).
I said at the start that Medusa’s Sisters fell into the middle of the three most recent Greek retellings I’ve read. And in my overall hierarchy of such works, I’d say that holds true. I absolutely loved and was wholly captivated by stories like Madeline Miller’s Circe or Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls. I didn’t fall in love the same way with Medusa’s Sisters, but that’s more testament to the rare excellence of the other two than any criticism of Bear’s work, which features engaging voices, a bitingly insightful feminist viewpoint, a well-chosen structure, and, particularly after Medusa’s death, a poignant and moving latter part of the novel. Recommended.