Thursday, September 12, 2013
Rating: 3 stars
Length: A touch dense (431 pages)
Publication: June 4, 2013 from Poisoned Pen Press
Premise: Medea, princess of Colchis, has been raised to the worship of Hekate and loves the goddess's dark mysteries, even though other ways of life draw her interest. When Jason comes to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, she must struggle to choose the right course amid tangled loyalties. Her life becomes a myth even as she lives it, wrapping her truth in fear and mysteries
Warnings: rape, attempted rape (incestuous in one instance), gore, mutilation, murder of children
Recommendation: The premise really isn't bad, and if you like ancient Greek mythology or overt examination of gender roles, this may be your thing. It's light on fantasy, but that helps humanize Medea; the problem is that it sticks closely enough to earlier material to be choppy, not giving any individual scene enough time to develop.
Spoilers for things that are in the Euripides play of the same name. If you're looking to be surprised by material that is literally thousands of years old, you don't want to bother with this book in the first place. There are also spoilers for a big non-Euripides romance in the red pen section, but it's obvious almost immediately how that's going to go. Note: some of these spellings may not be ones you've seen before, but they match the instances in the book.
What gives this one the feeling of myth:
The story opens on young Medea going into the darkness of the cavern and grove dedicated to Hekate. She grows up quickly and is prone to asking questions of Trioda, the impatient priestess of Hekate charged with her raising and training in these dark arts. The best and most vivid core of the novel arises here. Medea soon learns to be fearless in the dark and to practice the mysteries of her goddess, from brewing potions and poisons to handling snakes without fear. Kerry Greenwood chose to spin this more in the nature of a historical novel than more typical fantasy, which means that Medea unfortunately does not get the dragon chariot that we see in Euripides, but Medea's moments with the goddess are all the more striking in a world without many overt spells. Some mysteries of the goddess are shown to be herblore or exceedingly clever trickery, but others seem to lie in the realm of magic that makes most people afraid. The way Medea is comfortable calling on her goddess for blessings and then using sleight of hand to fake a ritual to benefit Jason helps explore the way she sees the world: as long as she's not using sacred words, it's perfectly comfortable for her to do as she wishes, all the more when she's separated from her birth culture and other priestesses. She even claims to use her divine sight at one point when she's actually using her observation of mechanical science, and it adds to the flavor of the world. People can trust magic and science simultaneously, and it makes for rich worldbuilding in which the worship of the gods feels utterly reasonable.
Medea grows up to love the way being a priestess of Hekate gives her freedom to move in the men's public world without being chastised, but her views change to an extent when she visits the Scythians and learns to ride a horse and wear trousers. While the look at gender roles can sometimes grow too lecturing in nature, it's strong here: Medea sees the customs as barbaric, but they also allow for greater freedom of movement than what she knew at home. She and Jason's childhood companion, Naupilos, each journey through lands with different expectations for men and women and struggle to find a place to feel comfortable. The struggle becomes especially keen when Medea weds Jason and has to go to Iolkos and Corinth, where women must go veiled and stay in the women's quarters unless they have a male escort and their husband's permission. She sees it as a trade made for the chance at love and children after she left her first home, but it's still difficult for her to realize that so few of her choices are truly her own. Sailing a week or two down the coast can land her in a completely different world, but she doesn't fall into the common trap of being able to just wave away gender conventions because she's the main character. Women everywhere are also all different-- in some places Medea finds comfort and sisterhood even amid strange customs, and in others she's shunned as a slut or a sorceress because she's not pure enough for the tone of the city. It helps reinforce the loose city-state setting; people may share trade and similar customs, but smaller things change dramatically even over small distances.
The setting includes quite a few nods to characters who will later appear in the Odyssey, which makes for fun name-spotting and a bonus to fluid-but-ancient dialogue style, and the secondary characters as a whole are just delightful. Herakles in particular is a joy to read-- he's still regretful and atoning for the way he killed his children in a fit of unknowing battle-rage, but he follows Hera's command to join the Argonauts. Greenwood really plays up the way that Herakles has Hera as his patron and as a servant of women. He's a hero in battles, yes, but he looks like an old peasant and is more level-headed than anyone else on the Argo. Minor characters like Cheiron (centaurs in this work are people who revere horses, not horse-human hybrids), teacher of Jason, and Trioda, teacher of Medea, are also well-sketched-- it's interesting to see how the thoughts of these teaching authority figures ripple through the actions of their young charges in adulthood. Cheiron believes that women are useful for nothing but sex and children, while Trioda warns that men are dangerous and enmity between the sexes is the way of the world. Medea's struggle to decide what feels right to her as she interacts with men and women truly shine at time, though Jason's mind is a closed book that's implied to be empty, or at least covered in very short words. Many of his shortcomings, however, blur when he's among the Argonauts, who seem to have one character trait apiece but have great flashes despite that limitation.
The red pen:
The world shines in places and the author has clearly done research, but the plot feels bogged down all too often. Greenwood includes many instances from the tales of Jason and the Argonauts to illustrate how long and perilous their journey was (and to balance it so that Medea doesn't have fifty consecutive pages of narration), but not all of those instances are necessary. The scenes that provide the most insight into Jason and Naupilos's characters come early in the book, and the later "and then we stopped at this island to do this thing" scenes make for a choppy episodic structure that contributes bulk without adding much meaning. It may be entertaining to hear that the Argonauts evaded a giant wave or bantered on the ship or spent the winter sleeping with the women of Lemnos, an island where the women had killed their husbands, but it comes off more as padding with character accents than as something crucial to either the plot or the people. Medea's travels with Jason take a similar pattern: there's so little space for each dramatic encounter that it begins to feel as though they're being pulled along plot railroads to get to the next major event, and that drains much of the potential tension from the middle of the book. The plot has to skip years at a time to incorporate Jason and Medea's childhoods as well as their tragic adult history, but it doesn't always make the best use of that space.
Jerking from encounter to encounter might work if each piece felt like a snapshot of an evolving person, but the characters by and large don't seem to grow in a realistic way. Medea feels like a convincing child and feels like a solid adult once the drama settles down, but the transition isn't really articulated. She goes from struggling to be free but also proud of her goddess and her homeland to suddenly willing to sell out her father, profane her faith, and trade away the greatest treasure of her kingdom. The justifications never quite flow, even when she reflects on them later. Trioda had just done something truly upsetting, but indignation at her father and young infatuation for Jason, to whom she hasn't even spoken yet, don't hold up as motives to betray everything she knows. She acts because the story says that it's time for her to move and experience sudden turmoil, not because it's necessarily the right direction for her character, and that makes it difficult to buy into her otherwise fascinating journey. In one scene she's in love with Jason and he's promising to cherish her forever, and just a few chapters later she's calmly mentioning that he had turned away from her in bed because she was pregnant. Not long after that, she's given birth to several children and Jason is starting to turn his back on his vows, but there's no real sense of transition. We're told via long introspective passages that some trend has been developing, but the catalysts for the these transitions just....don't appear in all too many cases, which is a shame given the project of re-imagining these mythical figures as real people.
The largest problem with Medea's story is the character of Naupilos, Jason's childhood companion. He displays a few interesting traits, like a deep devotion to the sea and a reluctance to hurt and degrade women in the way Jason seems comfortable doing, but his whole character is framed in contrast to Jason. Jason has rank and arrogance and good looks while Naupilos is a humble fisherman's son. Jason seizes what is offered and even what isn't while Naupilos waits patiently for consent and invitations. Jason desires Medea for her rank and her skill with poison while Naupilos is drawn to her cleverness, beauty, and strength-- he wants to take care of her. It's just this side of an old Goofus and Gallant cartoon from Highlights. Naupilos exists as a friend and eventual safe harbor, Medea's protector and eventually her reward, as she is his reward for his many years of waiting and pining from afar (which puts him in kind of the position of a creepy "nice guy," since he doesn't engage her directly for a long time). Given perhaps a week after finishing the book, it would be difficult to name anything about Naupilos besides that he's a fisherman with a family he left behind and that he wants Medea even though he knows he shouldn't. Naupilos is a counterpoint to Jason and a romantic stuffed animal for Medea, and that doesn't leave him much room to be a character in his own right-- given how central he is to both the plot and the emotional journeys, this makes the sections from his point of view drag on for far too long.
The verdict: Greenwood does an interesting job of re-imagining the source material to give Medea her own voice and a richer background in her priestesshood, but as a whole it's just not a terribly gripping read. The other characters have power and majesty because they've appeared in ancient works that are better known, not because they're compelling in their own right. The secondary characters who didn't appear in myth, or who appeared only briefly, are fresh and not infrequently funny, but they're also prone to dying or vanishing from the scene without much warning. I'd read the rest of the series from the library if I had time to kill, but I wouldn't put much effort into seeking them out.
Prospects: This is the first book in the Delphic Woman trilogy; it looks like each book will be following a different person, since this feels like the smooth end of Medea's story.
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~Hades' Daughter by Sara Douglass is the first book of The Troy Game series. It swings to the other extreme, often reveling in its own melodrama, but the struggle of women who are famous in myth to survive on their own terms is similar, as is the eye for lush detail.