Ithaca by Claire North – Book Review!

‘The greatest power we woman can own, is that we take in secret . . . ‘

Seventeen years ago, king Odysseus sailed to war with Troy, taking with him every man of fighting age from the island of Ithaca. None of them have returned, and the women have been left behind to run the kingdom.

Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. Whilst he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that husband is dead, and suitors are starting to knock at her door . . .

But no one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’ empty throne – not yet. Between Penelope’s many suitors, a cold war of dubious alliances and hidden knives reigns, as everyone waits for the balance of power to tip one way or another. If Penelope chooses one from amongst them, it will plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war. Only through cunning and her spy network of maids can she maintain the delicate balance of power needed for the kingdom to survive.

On Ithaca, everyone watches everyone else, and there is no corner of the palace where intrigue does not reign . . .

“Once upon a time, there were three queens in Greece. One was chaste and pure, one a temptress whore, one a murderous hag.”

Seventeen years since Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan war leaving his young wife Penelope and infant son, Telemachus behind, Penelope, and Ithaca are in a precarious position. No one wants a Queen running a country, no one believes she truly can, and now they believe Odysseus to be dead, suitors have come in droves to try and gain Penelope’s hand and, through it, the rule of Ithaca. But no one man is strong enough to claim the throne outright, and with Pirates plundering her shores, Penelope goes to the only people she can truly trust. Thus a spy network of the women of Ithaca is formed. But with infighting between her suitors and deception and betrayal behind every corner, Penelope will need to use every ounce of her cunning and skill if she is to make it through this alive.

I won’t lie. I am desperately behind on all the amazing Greek mythology retelling’s that are out there but, after being gifted a beautiful finished copy of this from the publisher, I couldn’t resist diving straight in. Ithaca is a story that focuses on the forgotten women, namely Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and tells the story of how she kept the Kingdom of Ithaca safe and whole while her husband was away. But what makes it unique is the fact that, instead of being told from Penelope’s pov, it’s instead narrated by Hera, Greek Goddess, wife of Zeus, who risks her husbands ire by delving into the lives of men and inserting her influence to help Penelope along the way. The story being told from Hera’s pov added a whole other depth, as well as allowing us to venture outside of Ithaca’s walls, following the other two ‘Queen’s’ of Greece, Clytemnestra, my Queen ( I couldn’t get enough of her story) & Helen, as well as introducing us to the fickleness of the other Gods. While this could have meant we lack any kind of empathy of bonding with Penelope and the other humans we meet, I instead found I gained a deeper insight to them. Through Hera, we learn their deepest desires, their innermost thoughts, but we are also kept just on the outskirts of knowing everything to make sure we get a few surprises along the way.

Hera’s narration style did take a little while for me to get used to. She certainly never minces her words, especially in her interactions with the other gods, or when she is talking about the fragility and stupidity of men. How the poet’s never quite get the story right, focusing on all the glory, but never how they got there or what happened afterwards. Some of her stories, or thought’s about the ‘heroes’ of Greek mythology, and Penelope’s suitors had me laughing out loud in parts and she certainly pulls no punches. However, there was a lot of more modern language thrown in and, while this generally added a humorous tone to an otherwise dark and depressing tale, it did throw me the first few times. That being said, North’s prose and the fluidity of her storytelling made the story, which dealt with some truly heavy topics, flow with an ease that had me reading huge chunks in one go, never quite willing, or ready, to put it down.

We start the story following Penelope’s denial that her husband is dead, something at first we aren’t sure is due to loyalty to him, or a lack of interest in marrying anyone else. North does a fantastic job of showing just how precarious Penelope’s position is, in a world where women are seen as second class citizens, Penelope risks not only her own life, but that of her people by refusing to choose a new husband to rule Ithaca. She paints a bleak, but truthful picture of the lives of women in that time, things to be bartered for, warred over, taken most times against their will, but she also shows how the women used that to their advantage. Lovers, whispering planned words into their partners ears. How just acting meek can give you an upper hand when no one expects anything of you. There are some pretty disturbing scenes throughout, none overly graphic, but they paint enough of a picture to understand what is going on and I couldn’t help but feel my blood boil reading these scenes. We see this more through the small insights we get into Clytemnestra and Helen, their stories more harrowing than Penelope’s. I wont give anything away for those that don’t know the original story, but safe to say if I was in Clytemnestra’s position, I don’t think I would or could have held out as long as she did.

For a feminist retelling it certainly hits the mark. We see the meek front Penelope puts on for her suitors and advisers, but also the shrewd and calculating side to her that ensures Ithaca remains intact whilst her husband is away. She never wanted to rule, unlike Clytemnestra, but her son is too young and foolhardy, and she see’s no suitor who would not try and kill him to cement their rule, so rule she does, but through shadows and whispers and secret sects of women who control the Island for her. The addition of this being told from Hera’s POV though is what really takes the feminist undertone to a new level. The Goddess of wives and mothers, she has been relegated to a small, joked about role, when once she used to be worshipped and prayed to by all. Having Hera as our narrator brings in the other God’s and she shows just how fickle and unworthy of worship they truly are. Athena, for example, whose only interest is in those Poet’s will write about, and what poet writes about women. Athena who, when a woman was raped on her alter blamed the woman instead of the ‘great’ man who did it. But North also shows the intricacies of her characters, how Penelope would give up her family to protect her son, and how Hera would not risk involving herself in anything that would gain the wrath of Zeus. These characters aren’t meant to be clean cut, good or bad, instead it’s meant to show the hypocrisy of, not just ancient Greece, but humanity in general, how the God’s that were and are still reviled aren’t that different from us mere humans, and this is something North does incredibly well.

Suffice to say I now have the Greek mythology bug! Ithaca wasn’t quite what I imagined but I adored it nevertheless. If you love feminist re imaginings filled with deception and intrigue, with unforgettable characters and smatterings of humour, and plenty of harrowing scenes and heartbreak, you need to read this book! I can’t wait to see what North has in store for us next.


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5 replies »

  1. hjvhfhjhj HOW ARE ALL OF YOUR REVIEWS SO INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL, I’M OBSESSED WITH THIS ONE??? honestly, the way you describe everything is JUST PHENOMENAL. plus all the themes of the book SOUND SO SO GOOD AND FEMINIST GREEK RETELLING IS BASICALLY EVERYTHING THAT THE WORLD HAS EVER NEEDED. (and me too. I AM DESPERATE. YOUR REVIEW MAKES THE DESPERATION INCREASE) honestly have half a mind to go grab an ebook copy from the library or something and spend the rest of the evening + night reading THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS <33

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! Honestly comments like this absolutely make my year as a blogger. It really is a phenomenal read, and perfect if you love a good feminist retelling, & 100% worth grabbing a copy and diving in & I hope you enjoy it if you do 😀


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