Alexandra Pierce Reviews Ithaca by Claire North

Ithaca, Claire North (Orbit 978-0-31642-296-3, $28.00, 400pp, tp) September 2022. Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio.

People have been doing rewrites of Greek myths since they were first shared in the agora: the different births of Aphrodite, the many fates of Iphigenia, and so on. The last few decades have seen feminist reworkings of these epic stories, bringing women to the forefront, with (it must be said) varying levels of success. The story of Troy and all its many interconnec­tions is an obvious source of material, with so many women involved and so many of them getting short shrift in the ‘original’ versions. This is where Claire North steps in with Ithaca, coming hot on the heels of 2021’s Notes from the Burning Age.

Up to now, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 Penelo­piad has been my favorite modern version of the story of Penelope: wife of Odysseus, left alone on the island of Ithaca for two decades – one decade of the Trojan War and then another while Odys­seus is off having adventures (or prevented from coming home by Poseidon, pick how you’d like to describe it). Homer’s Odyssey focuses on Odys­seus, with occasional side notes on how Penelope is doing (hounded by dozens of suitors, all telling her Odysseus is dead and she needs to remarry) and how their son Telemachus is coping. North’s retelling is very different from Atwood’s – the latter a novella, told by Penelope in the afterlife; the former a novel, first in a duology, and told as the action happens not by Penelope but by Hera, queen of the gods.

The narrator is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this novel for those familiar with the Greek myths. Hera has often been overlooked; frequently cuckolded by her brother-husband, her power seemingly irrelevant because it is concerned with the realm of women, she’s often little more than a shrewish voice in the Olympian court. North gives Hera moments of introspec­tion that provide the reader with insight into her character, reflecting on her experiences in the patriarchal world of Olympus; it’s fair to say Zeus doesn’t come off well (as he shouldn’t). She also interacts with other gods, especially Athena (whom Hera calls stepdaughter, which is awfully polite of her): Odysseus is Athena’s special pet, so this to be expected. Athena doesn’t come off well either: she is the goddess of war and wis­dom, and has little time for women and mothers, which is antithetical to Hera’s perspective. North has Hera intimately connected with queens, and the time of Troy is a time of three great queens: Helen and Clytemnestra (sisters), and Penelope (their cousin). Hera sees this moment, and these queens, as a moment that she can grasp, and particularly involves herself in Clytemnestra and Penelope’s affairs. However, it’s not only queens who are the focus of the story – this is not a story where you wonder what the 99% are doing while royalty are off having their problems. In line with Hera’s concern for women more broadly, the narrative is also concerned with common women, making Ithaca a much more rounded place than might otherwise be the case. There’s a fair amount of space devoted to the experience of Penelope’s slaves: some long-time maids who love their queen, others newly enslaved women of Troy who are (naturally) deeply resentful of their state. Penelope also interacts with free Ithacan women as she hatches a plan to defend Ithaca from pirates, and I suspect these women will feature even more in the second book (House of Odysseus, due March 2023).

As in The Odyssey, the main problem for Penelope is her suitors. These men, from all over Greece (and even one from Egypt), have been abusing her hospitality for months: eating her food, drinking her wine, molesting her maids, and demanding that she acknowledge her wid­owhood and therefore remarry. North does an excellent job of making the suitors, and in some cases their fathers, genuinely repugnant; they are obnoxious and arrogant and, it’s clear, pretty nor­ mal for men of their station. I admired how North made these men individual and human, while not insisting that the reader sympathize with them.

Another fascinating alteration to the story North introduces is that Electra and Orestes, pursuing their mother for killing their father, fol­low Clytemnestra’s trail to Ithaca, thus bringing those two great stories together. It allows North to showcase another example of families interact­ing, and reacting to difficult circumstances, in parallel with Penelope and Telemachus – whose relationship, while poor (Telemachus has decided he doesn’t need to have anything to do with her now that he is grown up), has at least not been re­duced to matricide. In The Odyssey, Telemachus visits with his aunt Helen, now restored to her husband Menelaus; the connection to this other part of the family actually makes more sense, in terms of their respective experiences.

Penelope is a clever, complicated woman, who is doing the best she can in a very difficult, male-dominated world; very few of the councilors who have been running Ithaca with Odysseus away (or so they think) give her any consideration. North’s version of Hera compels a rethink about her place in these stories. And the final moments of Ithaca set up the following book very nicely indeed. This is my first Claire North novel, but not my last.

Alexandra Pierce reads, writes, podcasts, cooks and knits; she’s Australian and a feminist. She was a host of the Hugo Award winning podcast Galactic Suburbia for a decade; her new podcast is all about indie bookshops and is called Paper Defiance. Alex has edited two award-winning non-fiction anthologies, Letters to Tiptree and Luminscent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler. She reviews a wide range of books at

This review and more like it in the November 2022 issue of Locus.

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