Everyone knows the tale of Odysseus. The guy sailed off to fight a war for his buddy’s pride, leaving behind his young wife and infant son. Twenty years later he finally makes it back home after sailing all over Greece and having a million different adventures to find his wife still waiting for him (and beating off a million different suitors who want his kingdom by the way). But what happened to Penelope before Odysseus shows back up and chases off the would-be kings? What did she have to go through in those long and lonely twenty years? Claire North attempts to give us some answers. Ithaca gave us the first part of Penelope’s story. Now her tale continues in House of Odysseus.
[Warning: Contained in this book and mentioned in this review are instances of sexual assault and domestic violence. For more information or if you need help visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 800.799.SAFE]
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Redhook for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of House of Odysseus contains some spoilers!]
A new perspective on a classic tale
The tale of Odysseus is one of the best-known stories in the world. It’s been told and retold for literally thousands of years now. I mean the guy has an actual word based on his name that encapsulates his story (odyssey: a long and eventful journey). And because we all know his story we also know about Penelope, the perfect wife. She held down his kingdom and refused to remarry no matter how many people told her Odysseus was dead or how many suitors beset her.
For TWENTY YEARS she was the perfect wife. So we know her story too. Or at least we know the story from the perspective of a man using her as a plot mechanic is his story. But what about her story? That is what North offers us in her follow-up to Ithaca, House of Odysseus.
To be fair, Claire North also offered this in Ithaca. Both books are part of a trilogy that gives us Penelope’s story while Odysseus is gone adventuring. Aphrodite serves as the narrator for Penelope’s adventures and boy, does she offer an interesting perspective and some colorful commentary to spice up the story. While Penelope is busy trying to protect her kingdom from a sneaky visit/takeover by Menelaus, Aphrodite is busy imagining everyone with their clothes off. Both the focus on Penelope and Aphrodite’s perspective help to freshen up this old tale and make it into something at once new and familiar.
House of Odysseus is a battle of brains, not brawn
Odysseus is known for being tricky. It’s his Trojan Horse that ends up winning the war for Helen after all. But he’s not the only royal in Ithaca with some brains. Penelope is known to be rather tricky herself. And House of Odysseus really showcases this. Not only has she been running a country for nearly twenty years at this point, but she’s also managed to do it in a way that no one accused her of actually doing it (a woman running a country, no way!). She’s also managed to keep dozens of suitors at bay without insulting any and starting a war. It’s really kind of incredible.
But now she has a new set of problems. Orestes, the King of Kings of Greece appears to be insane. His sister, Elektra believes him to be poisoned and has brought him to Penelope begging for discretion and help. Penelope offers to do her best but then Menelaus shows up. He presents “gifts” and offers “help” in ways that can’t be turned down, but yet leaves him more in control of Ithaca than Penelope. And he wants Orestes. Menelaus can show the other kings that Orestes is mad, he believes he’ll be crowned the new King of Kings. But don’t think that Penelope is going to just let Menelaus have his way.
Penelope has a plan. And it’s a good one. When someone throws a wrench in Menelaus’ way, it’s just what she needs to enact her plan. But Menelaus isn’t as dumb as he looks. Penelope has her work cut out for her. Can she save Ithaca from destruction?
Narrator both a plus and a minus
Aphrodite is the Greek god most often looked down on. Oooo, love goddess, wowie. She’s also often reduced to a sex goddess. But she is the goddess of love and desire and as such is really the most powerful of all the gods. Personally, I think that’s why she’s debased so often, love is the most powerful force there is. That makes it scary. So making Aphrodite trivial takes her from a formidable, powerful, scary goddess to a silly, laughable figure.
Anyway, my point is that she is very powerful and she makes sure to let us know this in House of Odysseus. The only problem is that her personality is all over the place. Sometimes she comes across as a powerful goddess, and other times she comes across as a silly valley girl.
North can’t seem to make up her mind about how she wants to present Aphrodite. It would have made Aphrodite a stronger character if she had chosen just one personality for her. Personally, I would have gone with the strong, scary goddess instead of the valley girl. It would have been a different take on Aphrodite and it would have worked well with Penelope.
It also would have cut so much needless patter out of the story. Aphrodite would get stuck on tangents about people’s bodies or clothes like she was a horny teenager and it really detracted from the overall story every time. I didn’t like how this powerful goddess who brags about Zeus fearing her, would suddenly be lost in a guy’s pecs. It was silly and could have been avoided.
House of Penelope
Penelope is a strong woman who deserves more credit than she gets. Not just for being faithful for twenty long years, but for successfully running a country when no one wanted her to. She deserves to have her story told from her perspective and it was nice hearing it. Claire North’s style was a little wordy for me personally but the story was well crafted with not one but two mysteries to solve. If you can get past the talkative narrator then Houses of Odysseus is a great summer read.
My Rating: 7/10
House of Odysseus by Claire North is available on August 22. Will this make it onto your TBR list? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.