Review: THE SHADOW OF PERSEUS by Claire Heywood

Well, that was interesting!

I’ve been trying to keep up with the latest crop of ‘feminist’ or ‘female-centred’ myth retellings, so I was keen to see what Claire Heywood was going to do with the story of Perseus. I have to admit, I was surprised!

The story is told from the perspectives of three of the women in Perseus’ life: his mother Danae, Medusa, and the princess Andromeda, whom he rescues and marries. It starts at a time before his birth, and follows him on his monster-battling adventures around the Mediterranean.

The surprising thing is that there are no monsters – they exist only in the tales Perseus tells to others. There are no gods either, except when they’re dimly seen through temple rituals. Perseus is not the son of Zeus – that’s just a story told to him by his mother. Andromeda is no princess, and her ‘rescue’ is an abduction accompanied by violence and bloodshed.

By stripping away all of the supernatural elements and rewriting them as stories told by the characters to justify their actions, Heywood creates something powerful. Perseus in particular is terrifying in his very human unpredictability and viciousness, raising the possibility that there might be a fine line between ‘hero’ and ‘serial killer’. This is not at all a comfortable read: but it is a compelling one.

Removing the gods from a mythical narrative and providing prosaic explanations for supernatural events are not new ‘twists’, of course. Seneca used to dial down the involvement of the gods so that human cruelty came to the fore in his tragedies; Livy couldn’t let a mythical explanation lie without giving his readers a more sensible option. Running right through Greek and Roman literature, we find this rationalising strand. When it comes to myth, there’s nothing new under the sun: and yet the human element still holds the power to fascinate. This is a particularly fascinating example because it’s just so easy to hate Perseus: it’s not at all a stretch for us to see the hero as a monster.

There are some things about the novel that I don’t like. In common with many readers, I suspect, I’d like more Medusa: she barely gets a chance to develop as a character, and her back-story remains in shadow. Medusa is a favourite character to a lot of people, and this Medusa is surprising in many ways. More Medusa, please!

But my main objection to the story is that nobody ever manages to emerge from the shadow of Perseus. The women in his life endure, but they do not triumph. Perseus becomes an abuser who can be managed, flattered and occasionally placated, but cannot be redeemed. His relationships with the women are all facilitated by shocking violence, and yet somehow the women tolerate his continued existence. This is billed as a ‘female-centred reinterpretation’, but it’s really not. Perseus is at the centre, and is never displaced. The women around him finally learn to speak up, but very carefully indeed; and while this does moderate his worst behaviour, it also leads him to target others. There’s no empowerment here. I was left deeply frustrated and with a powerful need to punch something.

That said, I would happily recommend this book. It’s very well written and well researched, with interesting settings (particularly the North African ones) and a pace that builds relentlessly, and the shifting points of view aren’t difficult to follow (I’m picky about that!). In fact, it’s the most captivating novel I’ve read in months. It also offers an interesting way of thinking about myth, as a tool for social acceptance and deflection of personal responsibility, which is quite exciting in a myth retelling. Heywood doesn’t offer us gods and monsters, and she doesn’t give us kick-ass heroines either – but she does show us people, and she does it well.

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 Goldsboro Books

…or support your local independent bookshop!

The Shadow of Perseus will be released on Feb 21st, 2023.

4 thoughts on “Review: THE SHADOW OF PERSEUS by Claire Heywood

  1. Interesting what you say about North Africa. I am not very well up on Perseus as a myth, only snippets and Clash of the Titans so, and I am sure this might leave me open to ridicule, I did not know until three weeks ago that the Medusa/Andromeda action took place in North Africa. I’m just on an ‘Round the World in 100 Objects’ course and one of the objects was Kimathi Donkor’s 2011 painting Rescue of Andromeda where she is black – because, of course, she is Etheopian. Why I thought all the action was centred around Greece I didn’t know so I will watch the films again to see what pointers there are. However, because of this awakening moment I will give the book a go for this alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ditto everything! I am about to review this myself as I have been listening to the audiobook. You have said everything I have thought and couldn’t put into words. Will have to find another angle now! Definitely agree re Medea, rather liked ‘Stone Blind’ for that reason.

      Liked by 1 person

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