My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton Audio for an advanced copy of this in audiobook form in exchange for an honest review.
There are a lot of Greek Myth Retellings out there, which I know can elicit some skepticism amongst readers around whether a new publication can actually bring anything new. Personally though I’m not bored of retellings. There are several I’ve read recently that have really affected me. The vogue for telling old stories from marginalised perspectives is prevailing simply because it is a good idea. It’s fascinating to me to see a story reimagined from a different angle, and Greek myth, with its violence and its focus on the ‘heroic’, is a fertile ground for mining the stories of those initially dismissed to the shadows.
Of course not every book hits the mark, and it’s all about the execution. Some retellings make me weep, and some make me bored. The Shadow of Perseus was… somewhere in between those two extremes. It certainly kept me turning the pages, and there were things that I really liked about it. There were also elements that did grate on me.
What gripped me?
This is a retelling of the myth of Perseus, son of Zeus, Gorgon-slayer, rescuer of princesses from sea-monsters, founder of Mycenae… hero. Except of course in this retelling his heroism is very much called into question. The story is told from the three points of view of the women closest to the young Perseus: his mother, Danae; his wife, Andromeda; and his victim – the Gorgon, Medusa.
The story runs fairly faithfully along the pathway carved out by the original myth – but with a significant departure in that there is neither magic nor evidence of the divine in this story. The characters are religious, yes, and there are prophecies and sacrifices galore – but there’s no evidence that this goes beyond superstition, ritual and cultural practice.
Taking out the magic is a hugely significant change. Without it, all the elements that made Perseus ‘heroic’ – ie. being the son of Zeus, slaying monsters – do not exist, and we are instead left with a young man who just wants to be a hero, and who uses violence as an attempt to prove himself one. It’s a clever and interesting device… to change one thing about the setting of the myth, causing the central character to become something entirely other.
I liked the way Heywood keeps key elements of the original story – the slaying of Medusa for instance, or Perseus finding Andromeda chained to a rock-face – but finds non-magical ways to underpin their set-up. The stories she weaves to set up these scenes are plausible and also interesting. I enjoyed the inventiveness behind these backstories.
Well, Perseus was the least likable character I’ve read for a very long time. In fact I’m ticking off unlikable characters in my head trying to think of one I dislike more – and coming up short. It’s not even that he’s a villain… he’s not fun enough for that. I don’t love to hate him, I just hate him.
Now, a main character being unlikable is absolutely not in itself a bad thing in terms of story, but I just could not find satisfaction in the way the story dealt with him. There’s no come-uppance, no redemption arc, and the negative character arc wasn’t twisty enough to capture me. Perseus came across simply as a violent and supremely entitled boy who lacks even a trace of emotional intelligence and murders without thought.
Perseus destroys multiple people’s lives… and keeps being rewarded for it. The women whose points of view we follow spend most of their time forcing themselves to endure him, trying even to understand him, and pleading with him not to murder the next victim. I ended up longing for some kind of justice, or at least for the women’s freedom from Perseus’ grasp.
I want to emphasise that, throughout this story, I absolutely kept wanting to know what happened next, from morbid fascination if not anything else. It’s a quick and engaging read in that respect, and at least on the surface level it’s an inventive and interesting retelling of the myth.
But when you get deeper – I’m torn. There’s an argument that the experiences of the three women – which meander between tragic and stoic – do reflect the sort of actual female experiences you’d get in a society as violent and patriarchal as the one depicted. There’s possibly a realistic kind of tragedy about that, which could be powerful. But…I found it difficult. The three women were too similar to each other. Beyond their slightly different circumstances and origins, I just couldn’t differentiate them enough to see them as distinct interesting people. Instead I just saw their identical plights – to have come into contact with such an awful human being as Perseus – and was left with an overarching feeling of frustration.
The Shadow of Perseus comes out on 21 February 2023.