The Last Song of Penelope (Songs of Penelope #3) by Claire North

The Last Song of Penelope (Songs of Penelope #3) by Claire North

The Last Song of Penelope by Claire North
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adore Greek myth retellings when they’re done well. Circe and The Song of Achilles, Clytemnestra and Stone Blind, Ariadne and Elektra and Atalanta are all examples of excellent retellings, beautifully written. Stone Blind and Circe are even among some of my very favorite books. But North’s Songs of Penelope trilogy has usurped them all on my shelf. It’s rare that a mythic retelling is not a standalone novel. It’s rare that such a story can stay so true to its source material while also being wonderfully original. It’s rare that every book in a trilogy merits five full stars. Songs of Penelope manages to do all three of those things brilliantly. There is nothing that I would change about any of this trilogy, but I believe this final installment, The Last Song of Penelope, is my favorite. What a note to end on.Each of these three books is told by a different goddess. Ithaca came from Hera’s perspective. House of Odysseus, from Aphrodite. In The Last Song of Penelope, we hear from the third of Olympus’s most prominent goddesses: Athena. (Artemis is also present throughout the series, but she has no interest in sitting still long enough to spin a tale.) Athena is the goddess of war and wisdom, and she sees that the gods of Greece will someday become obsolete. She is determined to be timeless where they are not, and she knows that the best way to achieve that is through a different kind of immortality, that guaranteed by a really good story. She will not be the star of this tale; she will be on the periphery, but that will be more than the rest of the pantheon achieves. It will be enough. It is for the crafting of this story that she has chosen to patron Odysseus and coax him through the twenty years he is away from Ithaca, first in Troy and then on his decade-long journey home. In this book, Odysseus is finally home. And, through the eyes of Athena, we witness all Hades break loose in the court of Penelope.

The triumph of Odysseus as we see it in The Odyssey is tragic here. We see a man storm in and wreck everything a woman has built, as if he has earned that destructive privilege simply by being a man. But here, that destructive force is a hero of the ages, one that millennia of readers and listeners have respected for his canniness: Odysseus. We know him as wise and clever, a man who always thinks through every step in a plan. And here, we see him lose his grip on that cleverness. In the wreckage, he and his furious, devastated wife must figure out how to repair the damage. Or, at least, how to survive it.

I love the character work in this series. Penelope, who has always been portrayed has nothing more than a faithful wife with just enough of her husband’s cleverness to outfox the suitors who plague her halls, is a woman of great depth here. We see her grow as the series progresses, as the layers of her character are slowly peeled back. And then there’s Odysseus. Because he is so intelligent and canny, we see him regain his grip on the cleverness that failed him in the heat of the moment. We see him learning from those mistakes and putting serious effort into cultivating empathy, as that’s what he needs to understand Penelope. His responses are so different from those of other men and kings in this land, in this time. At first, these differences are solely because he refuses to be like other men; he is better. But as the story continues, he begins to see himself and those around him — especially the women — differently, more clearly. He changes. He learns. He grows. I found both husband and wife incredibly believable and exquisitely rendered.

North’s writing is fantastic. Her prose in this series is as close to flawless as humanly possible. It’s brimming with humor and emotion while also being absolutely gorgeous. This series is excellent in physical and digital form, because it’s just a wonderful, timeless story, very well told. But it’s absolutely brilliant on audio. The Iliad and The Odyssey were the zenith of oral storytelling, and North has woven that kind of cadence into her unique retelling. Catrin Walker-Booth also just does a phenomenal job on the audio narration.

The elements I loved in the first two installments in the series carry through The Last Song of Penelope, as well. Besides the aforementioned character development and phenomenal craftsmanship to the writing itself, I just love how this series is set up. The pacing and setting are very well done. But one of the highlights for me is all of the gender politics, both ancient and modern, that is woven into the narrative. This is a very feminist series, but it never felt preachy or like it had an agenda. The point was to tell the stories of the women and goddesses on the periphery of such a famous story, and North was very successful in her aim.

I love everything about the Songs of Penelope trilogy. It’s a unique but timeless take on a story that has shaped storytelling for as far back as collective memory can recall. The entire trilogy is now shelved alongside my favorites. It’s a story I’ll be revisiting often, and I’ll think of it whenever The Iliad or The Odyssey are mentioned.

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