I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Homer’s famous epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, we follow various men who go to war, face loss and destruction, and battle many obstacles to return home. In A Thousand Ships, we follow the women who lived alongside those men, seeing through their eyes and experiencing their side of the story. All these points of view are revealed through the eyes of the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope, as she seeks to show an aged Homer the perspectives of those he has overlooked.
The writing of this is often beautiful, but not too flowery. And clearly, Haynes is someone who knows the source materials well; the detail and care taken with the characters and the story really shows. The settings are well described, as is the action. The emotions of these women shine through.
I especially like that this novel didn’t focus on only the main players. Yes, there is Helen and Penelope and the main goddesses, but we also see through Iphigenia’s, Penthesilea’s, and Eris’s eyes. These are not figures well known, so it was great to see their stories told alongside the legendary tales of people like Achilles and Odysseus, whose stories we already know.
However, while this is an interesting novel, it is not without its flaws. For one thing, not only does it jump to different points of view every chapter, it’s told non-sequentially and covers the buildup to the Trojan War, the war itself, its aftermath, and the events of the Odyssey, among other smaller happenings. I can’t imagine someone who’s unfamiliar with Greek myths being able to follow this.
I also didn’t always love some of the relationships between the women. Instead of being a novel that always sought to show the power of women’s friendships or familial bonds, there were too many instances of women being unkind to each other or competing. Cassandra’s relationship with her mother was distant or sometimes cruel; Penelope’s view of Circe and Calypso was jealous almost to a tedious extent. In fact, I ended up not really feeling much sympathy for Penelope, aside from the fact that she has to deal with Odysseus for a husband. Something about her point of view irritated me, not least in that she called the aforementioned women “sluts.” I know Penelope is under a lot of stress, but you shouldn’t have to tear other women down to lift yourself up. Anyway. I’ll get off my soapbox.
In the end, A Thousand Ships entertained me and held my attention, mythology nerd that I am. But I think, rather than merely telling the familiar epics from new points of view, it could have also found ways to show these women find empowerment in these circumstances. Even if their heroics aren’t found on the battlefield, I think it could have been demonstrated better that they were still strong. For me, I’m not sure this book quite succeeded overall. All that said, I personally love that feminist twists on classical mythology has become such a subgenre in literature, and look forward to reading more in the future!
Overall rating: 7.8/10
A Thousand Ships will be published on January 26th, 2021!