Book Review: Ithaca (Penelope, #1) by Claire North

Book Review: Ithaca (Penelope, #1) by Claire North

Ithaca by Claire North
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher, Redhook via Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

I have such a weakness for Greek myth. Mythology of any kind fascinates me, but I’ve been obsessed with Greek mythology almost since I learned to read. Because of this love, I often find myself divided on retellings. On the one hand, I love any chance to revisit these stories I love, especially if told in a way that gives me a new perspective. On the other, I tend to judge these a bit harshly because of my love for the source material. But when I find a book that not only retells one of these timeless stories, it breathes new life into it, it becomes an instant favorite.

Ithaca? Definitely an instant favorite.

Ithaca is the story of, well, Ithaca, as Odysseus has been gone for 17 years and his queen, Penelope, strives to hold the kingdom together. She’s been inundated with suitors, seeking her hand in marriage because, in their minds, she’s quite obviously a widow. Of course, they actually care nothing about Penelope; they all just want to claim her kingdom for their own. Penelope balances on a razor’s edge, trying to keep the suitors fed and content as she constantly claims to be on the cusp of a decision, knowing full well that she can never choose because all of the spurned suitors will surely declare war on Ithaca. Thankfully, Penelope is incredibly clever, and she maintains this balance deftly and with astounding subtlety. But nothing lasts forever, and the suitors are beginning to get restless. As pirates begin periodically raiding this land of women and boys, Penelope is faced with an impossible decision. But as she decides, who will defend Ithaca?

Our tale is told in a nearly omniscient, mostly third-person narration through the eyes of Hera, queen of the gods and patron on the Greek queens. She is also a character in her own right, seeking to aid Penelope’s cause as subtly as possible, without drawing the attention of any of the other gods. Especially her husband, Zeus. I loved the mirroring of Penelope’s story with the little we learn of Hera throughout the novel. While I loved Penelope, Hera was definitely the stand-out character here. I’ve always disliked Hera, but in the past year or so I’ve read multiple books that showcased facets of her I had never considered. She has become so much more sympathetic and interesting to me through these works, and I absolutely adored her in Ithaca. I was also fascinated by Hera’s love for Clytemnestra, Penelope’s cousin and queen of Mycenae and murderer of her own husband, King Agamemnon. These are stories that I know well, but North’s writing and characterizations brought them to life in new ways.

Speaking of writing, I was incredibly impressed with North’s craftsmanship. She managed to both utilize the classical modes of storytelling used by Homer and his contemporaries while subverting those same modes in ways both thoughtful and irreverent. This could only be done by someone with a firm foundation in the source material who also has a brilliant ability to wield her craft. I’ve tried North’s writing in the past and found that it didn’t click for me as a reader. Either I’m a very different reader now, or she’s altered her style tremendously for this book. Or I was just wrong to begin with. The balance she was able to strike between respecting the material while also delivering snark and sarcasm in a way that brightened the story without ever making light of it, was astounding. There were some very emotional moments when really hard topics were conveyed beautifully, but there were also moments that made me laugh out loud. This was insanely clever, and I can’t wait to read the next installment.

Did I mention this is part of a series? Because I didn’t realize that for some reason until I reached the end. I might know where the story is going, but I still want the next book immediately. Alas, The House of Odysseus is at sea until May of 2023.

While I do think that Ithaca could be enjoyed on its own, I think that having a background with the foundational works it is retelling made reading this far more rewarding. Ithaca is mostly retelling what was happening in the background of The Odyssey, but it also references The Iliad quite often, as that covers why Odysseus left Ithaca in the first place. The Oresteia, which covers the lives and deaths of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and their children, Orestes and Elektra, was also an integral part of this story. Had I not been familiar with these, I might have gotten lost in the names and the plot and not noticed the superb writing and how North was playing with form. Which would have been quite the loss on my end, as that was what made this book so special for me.

The plot itself was propulsive. I found myself having a very hard time putting this book down while reading it. But housed within that addictive pacing was deep and moving commentary on the lack of autonomy given to Grecian women and how cruelly they were often treated. Parts of this, especially the portions about Clytemnestra’s treatment at the hands of her husband upon his return from Troy, were incredibly difficult to read. And hearing from Hera how much of herself she saw in these queens, how she had experienced the same, really drove home the fact that height of station did nothing to spare these women. North also expressed how the poets of Greece were men, who only immortalized manly things and, when forced to record a story where a woman was at the fore, would find ways to twist it and make her less so that men felt like more. This was beautifully put and very thought-provoking.

I loved everything about Ithaca, except for the fact that it’s not the standalone I was for some reason expecting it to be. But this is very much a rereadable book, so no doubt I will enjoy it again before the next installment is released. Not only did Ithaca give me wonderful characters to root for, it did so from stories I’ve known all my life and has thus altered them in my memory. For the better. I now feel this desire to go back to those original sources and revisit their stories from a new perspective. I can’t recommend Ithaca highly enough, especially to those who share my lifelong fascination with Greek myth.

Expected publication date: September 6, 2022 (US) | September 8, 2022 (UK)

You can purchase this book from: Blackwell’s | (Support independent bookstores!)Amazon US | Amazon UK | Audible | (Another way to support independent bookstores!) | Book Depository (Free shipping worldwide!)

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