I love the current trend of feminist (or female-centred) myth retellings. I love walking into a bookshop and seeing the popular enthusiasm for novels featuring Medusa, Ariadne, Pandora, Circe and Elektra. I love the beautiful covers that take Greek vase motifs and make them sparkly (not that I’m superficial or anything…!).
What I don’t love about feminist myth retellings is the Gloom.
As a ProfessionalClassicistTM, I do have to acknowledge that the Gloom has classical roots. Greek tragedy, of course, is pretty much non-stop gloom, punctuated by tension, betrayal, suicide, incest and/or maiming, before a bit more gloom to round things off; and female characters are often on the receiving end of the worst treatment tragedy has to offer. But that’s why I tend to avoid reading tragedy – personally, if not professionally.
Instead, I turn to myth for adventure: I like the improbably exotic lands, the fearsome monsters, the bold deeds of morally questionable heroes. I’m in it for the fun.
That’s why I was delighted when Jennifer Saint chose Atalanta as the subject for her next myth novel, following Ariadne and Elektra.
Atalanta has always been one of my favourite mythical women. She doesn’t need any rewriting to make her into a female role model: she’s always existed in ancient art and literature as a fearless woman famed for being faster, stronger and more adventurous than even the greatest male heroes. If anybody deserves their own novel, Atalanta does – and Saint’s treatment of her does not disappoint.
Saint’s Atalanta, abandoned on a mountainside because her father wanted a boy, cared for by bears and raised by Artemis and her nymphs, grows up with a unique view of the world. Despite her closeness to Artemis, she’s not foolish enough to rely upon the goddess as a protector: she has seen first-hand that the gods can be cold and capricious, and all she wants from Artemis is the chance to prove herself. She doesn’t rely upon men either; she regards most of them with suspicion, a few with interest, and one or two with passion, but she doesn’t see them as necessary to her happiness in the same way that her freedom is. In fact, that’s what marks the difference between Atalanta and the other strong female characters in the novel: the others look for men to dominate or manipulate so that they can live comfortable lives within a patriarchal society, while Atalanta exists completely outside that society.
As with many myth retellings, one of the joys of this novel is the well-known mythical characters who drift in and out, sometimes barely glimpsed but still familiar. We see Jason and Medea, Hercules and Hylas, Callisto, Peleus, Theseus and many others. Jason in particular is well drawn, showing early signs of his Euripidean social-climbing sliminess. I have to admit that I looked forward to the arrival of Medea, and thoroughly enjoyed the way events immediately started to revolve around her – much to Atalanta’s disgust!
This is a novel full of fun, with quests and contests, gods and giants, heroes and witches, and a woman fighting to make a name for herself. It’s a joyous adventure in a magical world where anything can happen – and frequently does. My only criticism is that it’s too short for me! The fight sequences are too brief, the epic quests go by too fast, characters vanish before the end of their story can be told, and the book’s conclusion (don’t worry – I won’t tell you anything about it!) seems to come almost out of nowhere. At more than 350 pages, it should have been quite sufficient – but in the end, I was left wanting more Atalanta!
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Cora Beth Fraser
You can preorder a signed copy from Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/atalanta/jennifer-saint/9781472297860
…or support your local independent bookshop!
Atalanta will be released in April 2023.
4 thoughts on “Review: ATALANTA by Jennifer Saint”
I have to wait that long to read it? I want to read it now! I was ready to rush out and buy it – then I saw the release date! I love her retelling of Elektra.
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I’m never sure what to expect from myth retellings – but this one left me with a happy smile, so I reckon it’s worth the wait!
And given that I have a certain assignment that needs to submitted soon it is probably best I don’t have distractions- especially when my ‘argument’ is being elusive!
It’s unfortunate that novels like this so often present the Gods as “cold and capricious.” it rules them out as reading material for contemporary devout polytheists and that’s unfortunate because it’s a hungry market.