A Thousand Ships is a retelling of the aftermath of the Trojan War, drawing on source material from the Iliad and Euripedes’ Trojan Women, amongst others.
Thematically it follows other books such as The Silence of the Girls in telling the stories of women, and showing their tragedy, heroism and agency within the male-dominated landscape of war. We hear from the women of Troy who are left at the mercies of the Greek army following the city’s fall and from Iphigenia, who is sacrificed by the Greek army in return for a wind. We hear from Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, who is left waiting for Odysseus to come home. We hear even from immortal women – from the three goddesses who fight over the golden apple and kick off the whole war, from Gaia – Earth – who suffers with the weight of humanity on her shoulders, and from the muse – Calliope – the very one whom Homer addresses at the beginning of the Iliad, bidding her sing of the wrath of Achilles.
But while this book is thematically similar to others in the ‘Greek Myth Retellings’ vogue, two things really set it apart for me.
Firstly the characterisation and the fact it is told from multiple viewpoints. Chapters in A Thousand Ships move between different perspectives and characters, returning to each storyline several times during the course of the novel. I enjoyed the expansiveness this gave to the theme. It gives us the stories of women as victims, yes, but also women as warriors (the Amazon, Penthesilea), women as avengers (Clytemnestra killing her husband Agamemnon) and women as immortal squabbling toddlers (the three goddesses over the golden apple). There’s a lot of agency, even in women who are victims but who still fight against all the odds to do what is right by themselves and those they love. Their characterisation is careful, specific and sharp – their tragedies made more painful by the fact they seem like real people and not just a generic ‘victim’.
“Heroism is something that can reside in all of us, particularly if circumstances push it to the fore. It doesn’t belong to men, any more than the tragic consequences of war belong to women. Survivors, victims, perpetrators: these roles are not always separate. People can be wounded and wounding at the same time, or at different times in the same life.”
Secondly, the humour. Don’t get me wrong – the book does not shy away from darkness. With the overarching theme of war, and particularly the victims of war, how could it not be dark? But the writing is on point and there are moments of wonderfully sculpted humour – both in individual lines and in the progression of storylines. Like the muse Calliope’s response to Homer’s evoking of her –
“If he tells me to sing one more time, I think I might bite him.”
and Penelope’s patience wearing ever more thin as Odysseus is continually delayed on his way home –
“Because really, how many cannibalistic giants can one Greek plausibly meet as he sails the open seas?”
What results is a complex and very thoughtful treatment of the overarching theme, and this is probably my favourite Greek Myth retelling so far.
I really enjoyed A Thousand Ships when I read it last year. Like you, I thought all the characters were brought to life well. I’m hoping to read another of Hayne’s books soon!
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Absolutely, I think sometimes the characterisation can be the pitfall of myth retellings in favour of an interesting take on the original plot and messaging, but these characters leapt off the page for me. I’d like to read more of Haynes too – I have Stone Blind lined up next!