A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes | Book Review

Happy Sunday, all!!

How are you? I hope you are having a relaxing and restful day at home and that you are staying safe given the recent winter weather!

On my end, today marks the end of my February vacation from school. I think I spent the last night of break well, though, staying up late to write this post. (On vacation, rules are out the window! I can read all day and write all night and eat ice cream whenever I please! Chaos reigns!!)

I offer today some thoughts on classicist Natalie Haynes’ new book, A Thousand Ships, which retells Greek mythology and the aftermath of the legend of Helen of Troy. So cool!

This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them… 

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash . . .

The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all…

Powerfully told from an all-female perspective, A Thousand Ships gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.

I LOVED this book. It’s brimming with lore, feminism, sharp witticisms, and sadness — all things I love in a story! I cannot fawn over it enough. 

Though largely episodic in nature, A Thousand Ships *does* feature a loose framing device: a weary writer, hoping to craft an epic, has called upon the muse of poetry for inspiration. That muse – Calliope – is delightful, beleaguered, and blunt, and she leads both the poet and us readers on a journey to explore the lives of the women of the Trojan War. Each resulting chapter centers upon a different queen, captive, goddess, or deity, and I found that this sweeping structure was well-suited to the novel’s goals. Haynes, with the skill of a Fate, weaves consistent themes and prose into each tale, helping to unify the proceedings.

While reading, it became apparent that my knowledge of the Trojan conflict stems mainly from Percy Jackson books and Wikipedia rabbit holes. Luckily, Haynes crafts a distinctive voice for each woman in A Thousand Ships, and a handy list of the saga’s players at the start of the book kept me from confusing Thetis with Themis or Polydorus with Polyxena. I loved that the book played with perspective and time to distinguish the voice of each woman, and the large cast allowed for moments of levity alongside prolonged grief. (Penelope’s chapters, styled as increasingly impatient letters to her long-absent husband, were a real highlight of the novel!)

Like the censored version of Troy I watched in my middle school history class, A Thousand Ships depicts very little actual fighting. Instead, it shuns the gore and glory of battlefields in favor of examining the intense grief that existed within mythical city limits. (Far more interesting, to me!) And the women’s stories still displayed a level of gravitas appropriate for a classical epic. Yay!!

I’ll leave you with a quote, from Haynes’ Calliope: “This is a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn.”

Thanks to A Thousand Ships, I’m on a quest for more mythology-inspired books! I recently finished Alexandra Bracken’s action-packed Lore, and next on my list is Circe and The Song of Achilles. I’m also quite excited to check out Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which similarly recounts the Trojan conflict from the perspective of a woman, Briseis. If you have any recommendations for books in this vein, I’d love to know!

Have a delightful week, my friend. Stay safe and stay warm! :–) 



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