The premise and cover of Olympus, Texas immediately grabbed my attention, but I wasn’t expecting anything earth-shattering. I figured I was in for an interesting story that would hopefully keep me engaged but which I would most likely forget about soon after. I was incredibly mistaken. It’s closing in on mid-June, and I can unequivocally say this is the best book I’ve read so far this year. And I started off the year with The Labyrinth of the Spirits, which blew my mind. I can’t believe I found this book even more impactful. Not only was the story excellent and the characters impeccably crafted, this book was a masterclass on the psychology of fictional beings who have been around for millennia without being this thoroughly exposed and explained. I feel like an entire college class could be taught on the Greek pantheon using Olympus, Texas as a textbook. It’s incredible, and it changed the way I think about stories I’ve known for decades.
“Being family just means we don’t have the safety of fences between us.”
The characters in this little novel are weirdly compelling. Less than fifty pages in they already felt more fleshed out and real than some real life human beings I’ve known for years. And that was before I fully realized who they were and what they represented. They are almost uncomfortably realistic in a remarkably short span of pages, and I was honestly in awe of Swann’s character craftsmanship.
“It’s much easier to break a thing that has already been broken once. Mending rarely makes it stronger.”
This book managed to feel like equal parts Grecian drama and a vivid image of the American South. It is also a blazingly furious, feminist answering of everything wrong with the world of Greek mythology. And, as stated in the narrative itself, this family is a walking collection of deadly sins; and yet, for all of their flaws and for all the ways they so deeply wound one another, there is genuine love there. The way in which Swann mines the psyches of these characters who have been around for millennia and manages to flesh them out so fully is mind-blowing.
“…those absent can feel more present, do more damage, than any warm body in the room.”
I knew going in that this novel was inspired by Greek mythology, but I had no idea that residents of Olympus, Texas would be modern takes on the gods of the classical Olympus. Zeus, Hera, Ares, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Artemis, Apollo, Athena, Hades, and others are present in more mortal forms, and it was fascinating to pair these characters up with their immortal counterparts. There are also more minor mythical characters littering the narrative, and every single little inclusion was so deftly and subtly crafted that I was awed.
“When people define themselves in comparison to something else, they become that much more committed to never changing their minds about that something else.”
I’ve read plenty of Greek myth retellings, but this book was so different. It wasn’t trying to retell one particular story of give a new take on one particular character. Instead, the story takes these famous faces and couches them in a new setting, but where the same stories play out. Yes, there is a realistic, modern twist to each component, but they’re essentially the same tales that have been told about the Greek pantheon for millennia. And yet it’s one of the most creative books I’ve ever read. One of the things lacking in classical myths is insight into the motivations of the players. Here, Swann gives us motivations and insights in spades, and it has changed the way I perceive the original myths. I found the idea fascinating, and the execution utterly compelling.
“Pessimism wasn’t a negative trait for them. It was a way to consistently feel happier, each mediocre event a triumph over potential calamity.”
It amazes me how effortless every aspect of this novel felt, especially considering how much juggling had to be done to give each of these characters room to shine without changing anything at the core of the gods and goddesses they represented. I was also stunned by how sympathetic the author was able to make characters like Hera and Aphrodite and Zeus, who have always felt so petty and two-dimensional to me. The reverse can be said for deities I’ve always been more drawn to, like Hephaestus and Athena. And the depth of insight on the part of the author is absolutely astounding. I would think she had taken things as deep as humanly possible, and she would blow me away with another little reveal.
“Our reactions to most things are muddier than we admit. Yours don’t have to be all good or all evil. They just are what they are.”
Even though this story is perhaps the most fascinating retelling I’ve ever read, it is at its heart an incredibly moving, intricate, heartbreakingly believable family drama that would still be fantastic without the reader having any knowledge of Greek mythology. And it addresses so many questions with both depth and grace. Is bad behavior a product of nature or nurture? Does family bring out the worst in one another? Can selflessness be just as harmful to others as selfishness? Do the sins of the father always come back on the son? Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of those who came before us? And, to go back to the Greek inspiration behind this tale, how much are women expected to suffer at the hands of the men who supposedly love them? Because every tragedy in this story, whether taking place on the page or in the past, is the product of a man’s lust, or jealousy, or pride. Not that the women aren’t culpable, but Swann did a great job harkening back to the mythological source material in this regard.
“If romantic love contained so much foolishness, waste, and want, why seek it out? It seemed a natural disaster on par with a hurricane–one would deal with it only if evacuation proved impossible.”
I loved everything about Olympus, Texas. The setting was believable, the character development was absolutely astounding, and the psychological insights into these timeless personalities will inform my views of them for the rest of my life. While I do feel like this would still be an incredibly compelling family drama for those who have no familiarity with Greek mythology, anyone who shares my fascination with Greek mythology should absolutely not pass on Olympus, Texas. Swann spent twelve years writing this book, her DEBUT NOVEL, might I add, and it really shows. This book is a masterpiece. Full stop.
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