I received an ARC of this novel through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
I think by now we all know I love a good retold myth, and that Medusa is one of my favorite figures in any mythological cycle. I would’ve been interested in a Perseus novel based purely on those two criteria. I was not wrong: The Shadow of Perseus is excellent.
Instead of focusing on the hero journey of the Perseus myths, Claire Heywood focused on the women who shaped his life, and the impact he had on them. The book is divided into four parts, beginning with Danae, Perseus’s mother, and how he came to be. She is a young princess who longs to marry someone from far away and escape her home, Argos, to get away from her increasingly paranoid and abusive father. Instead, his paranoia becomes madness when the Pythian Oracle prophesizes that he will be killed by Danae’s son, his grandson. Since Danae doesn’t have children yet, his response is to lock her in a near-windowless cellar in the castle until her childbearing years are over. Of course, in Greek myth no one outsmarts the Oracle, and trying to usually makes things worse. Danae befriends and comes to love a brave young man, which leads to her inevitable pregnancy and her father going off the rails. In a fit of madness, he imprisons her in a boat, nailing a cover over it so she can’t escape, and sets her and his impending grandchild out to sea to die. Instead, Danae is rescued by fishermen who kindly take her in, and so begins Perseus’s life.
The next two sections, Medusa and Andromeda, cover Perseus’s actions after his first romantic rejection, and how he takes his wife. In both cases, reading this book is like reading the effect of incel manifestos on women, from the woman’s point of view. The stories aren’t Perseus’s, they are Medusa’s and Andromeda’s, and Perseus is no hero: he is a horrid villain who manages to gaslight the captain and crew on his ship with wild stories of what happened, hiding the ugly truth of his actions. Heywood’s versions offer a much more likely retelling of the Perseus and Medusa conflict and Perseus “rescuing” Andromeda from the Kraken.
The final section, Danae, follows Perseus and Andromeda back to his roots and both bloody and surprising conclusions to the Oracle’s prophecy. It’s worth noting here that there are no trigger warnings on this book, but actual Greek society wasn’t kind to women. All three women in this tale are subject to the idea that the male in your life owns you, which is supposed to be protection but ultimately is just control. Perseus embodies this notion, even telling his mother she’s not allowed to marry again without his permission. In taking their own fates in their hands, all three women suffer, which is awful to read but accurate to the time. Danae, Medusa, and Andromeda’s stories full of physical and psychological abuse, rape, and trauma, and Heywood doesn’t shy away from any of it. Perseus, far from being the hero of this story, is a petulant boy trying to be a man using force and violence to get his way, resulting in horrendously violent temper tantrums that leave a wake of blood behind him. But The Shadow of Perseus is about how the women in his life learn to survive him (or not).
Heywood is a fantastic, lyrical writer who paints a well rounded picture of the ancient world. She doesn’t rely on any divine or magical interference for these myths, but tells them with a realism that makes them feel like what really happened. She depicts each woman in their native location, and I loved that she gave each of them a much more accurate characterization based on their different cities. Danae in Argos was the most stereotypical “Ancient Greek” of the women, but Medusa lived in Libya with the Gorgons and worshipped snakes and Andromeda was a tattooed nomad from an oasis in the desert. Each woman had distinct culture and reasons for how they came to to be where they first met Perseus. Far from the usual retelling of Greek mythology, The Shadow of Perseus provides a varied and exciting world of different people and cultures accessible by boat, versus the homogeny that has become stereotype.
I loved this book. I’d love to sit down with Claire Heywood and chat about the ancient world sometime, because she absolutely takes you there in this story. I loved that Perseus is the main conflict these women face, not the main hero in their story. They are not damsels in distress whom he rescues: he IS the distress, and they must find a way to mitigate him in order to survive. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a bit more realism in their mythology, and I can’t wait to read everything published by this author.