Ithaca by Claire North (The Songs of Penelope #1)
‘The greatest power we women can own is that which we take in secret.’
Seventeen years ago, King Odysseus sailed to war with Troy, taking with him every man of fighting age from the isle of Ithaca. None of them has returned, and the women of Ithaca have been left behind to run the kingdom.
Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. While he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that her husband is dead, and suitors are beginning to knock at her door.
No one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’s empty throne – not yet. But as everyone waits for the balance of power to tip, Penelope knows that any choice she makes could plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war . . .
CONTRIBUTOR(S): Catrin Walker-Booth (Narrator)
PUBLISHER: Hachette Audio UK
LENGTH: 391 pages (12 hours 32 minutes)
GENRE: Fantasy, Historical
Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Main Character(s), Gay/Achillean Secondary Character(s), Bi/Pan Main Character(s).
As the first book in the series, ITHACA tells a chapter in Penelope’s life while Odysseus is away. It tells a complete story, then ends rather dramatically in a way that foreshadows the sequel.
One of the difficulties in embarking upon retellings of Greek myths for a modern reader is that merely trying to lay out the relevant backstory involves listing several people Zeus assaulted, and a great deal of other violence, just to say the origins of a particular hero or the parentage of a demigod. ITHACA has a refreshing and circumspect approach to this and other similar difficulties which come from delving into stories where women were generally not considered to be full persons. ITHACA aims to tells the stories of the people the poets ignored, the women and slaves who were excised from their own stories (unless relegated to paragons of virtue or warnings of catastrophe). Hera is the narrator, telling what happened while Odysseus was on Calypso's Island, indulging in passion, and Penelope is at home in Ithaca, keeping dozens of suitors at bay. She keeps them just hopeful enough to refrain from war against Ithaca to claim her hand and her husband's responsibilities. In this retelling, there’s a cleverness and frustration to Hera. She, who was the goddess of queens, made small by Zeus and the imaginations of mortal men. Squeezed into the role of the goddess of wives, stifled by the implication that wives and mothers are less than men and distinct from warriors. Instead, ITHACA slowly disrupts that status quo as Penelope shows how she is a queen in fact and in name.
Because everything is from Hera's perspective, she doesn’t know exactly what Penelope is thinking. Hera's most frequent interactions are with Athena and Artemis, as she is deliberately hiding her activities from Zeus, and any god who might carry tales to him. There’s a loneliness and a hunger in Hera, as the way she can only accomplish things while beneath Zeus's notice mirrors the way that the wives, mothers, and queens, who pray to her must conceal their cleverness. When they produce something that men like, their ingenuity is misunderstood, or assumed to have another cause. When their cleverness threatens the men, either truly or only in their minds, then the women must be stopped through social pressure or violence.
The suitors cannot believe that Penelope continues to feed so many without gold, refusing to accept that she is a shrewd tradeswoman who manages her household well. Those who press her on the matter seem to think that hidden gold is a readier explanation than competent husbandry of goats. As if feasts are made of metal and gems, the men refuse to understand that barter and bargain can produce feasts with the resources of the farms and fields.
I’m very pleased with the worldbuilding, the narrative style, the focus as shaped through Hera, and many small moments in the story. I’m very excited to read more, and I’m glad this is a series instead of a standalone book.
Graphic/Explicit CW for sexual harassment, gore, blood, domestic abuse, violence, injury detail, death.
Moderate CW for classism, ableism, grief, sexism, misogyny, rape, sexual assault, toxic relationship, adult/minor relationship, infidelity, cannibalism, war, trafficking, slavery, murder, child death, parental death.
Minor CW for sexual content, child abuse, kidnapping, physical abuse, incest, pregnancy.