Friday, June 19, 2015

Book Review: Helen of Sparta

This was the third and final title I got for free from Amazon during my prime membership trial and I was drawn to it because of the title like a lot of people were like the editor at Amazon (wait they have editors working with these books?). She wrote along the lines of "everyone knows her as Helen of Troy so why Sparta?" but actually, every story says that Helen came from Sparta, she's only associated with Troy because of her abduction. A story that makes that distinction from the start sounded interesting so why not check it out?

Helen of Sparta by Amalia Carosella


Long before Helen went to Troy she was from Sparta and was born to be it's next queen. More beautiful than any other woman she has a hard time contextualizing this being so isolated from everyone else, both because of her status and her nightmares of the wars that will follow her. Many men around her still want to be with her despite those wars and they all believe that they have the power to defy fate and to make her love them.

And this has ended up being yet another retelling of Helen of Sparta/Troy that I disliked which is unexpected but frustrating. Helen is a hard character to make into a main character, the defining aspect of her across myths is that she left her home either willingly (and helped bring about the downfall of the Greeks, a seductive villainous) or that she was taken away and had to be rescued (a captive damsel) and both of those are rather passé ideas. I had high hopes however when Carosella started off her book by mentioning how The Trojan War cycle is really the downfall of what is called "The Age of Heroes" and I was hoping that maybe this meant Helen would have an active role in that and was interested to see how you could write a character who wasn't necessarily a villain but was part of the downfall of her own civilization. But alas, like Nobody's Princess/Nobody's Prize this story stops just short of the Trojan War and, considering that is what Helen is most associated with, it feels like a cop-out to actively avoid that event.

The rest of the story didn't endear me to it either, Carosella seems to want to do a retelling of the myth (of sorts anyway, there is a surprising amount of variation to start with) but seemed overly restrained, the way someone would for historical fiction about a 100% true historical figure. Helen has visions about the future but they make her more anxious instead of letting her do anything about it, she's engaged to Menelaus but goes willingly with Theseus instead and I think the ages are swapped around for this (Helen is aged up from however old she was in the myths but even making her 16 or 18 with a 40 year old is too much of an age gap for me). The story does work in the "Helen didn't go to Troy, she went to Egypt instead!" idea in an interesting way but that was the only interesting re-interpreted detail of the story that I actually liked.

Much less likable was the subject of Helen's birth which is a weird one even in the stories. Sometimes she is born from both of her human parents and sometimes she is born from the union of her mother Leda and the god Zeus as a swan, sometimes out of an egg but the impression I always had was that this was a happy union. Carosella flat out says in her notes that she could not understand how someone would willingly do bestiality so she makes it a rape which honestly sounded even harder to pull off to me. There is a lot of non-consensual sex between mortals and gods in this book actually, it's as if the Game of Thrones writers worked on it, and I have to admit that this plays into a larger complaint I have about Greek mythology reinterpretations in general. To generalize, the Greeks (and Romans) viewed their gods as having many of the same failings and strengths as ordinary people but whenever you have a story where the gods are just passing, side characters they come off as much more flawed than any human character. They're ruthless, greedy, envious, and never help if they can find a way around it, arguably it's the gods, not the common people, who are the antagonists in this story and they come off as flatter than life instead of larger than it which makes for a frustrating story to read.   

In short, this was a story that was hamstrung by too many things to be either an interesting or enjoyable retelling of the classic myths. The characters feel too constrained, the plot always seems like it's waiting for the Trojan War which will never come, and the gods seem to meddle without an overall, larger plan which felt odd. So, if anyone thinks they've found a better interpretation or wants to take a crack at it themselves, please let me know!

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