Ithaca by Claire North

September 8, 2022

Seventeen years ago, King Odysseus sailed to war with Troy, taking with him every man of fighting age from the island of Ithaca. None of them has returned, and the women of Ithaca have been left behind to run the kingdom.

Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. While he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that her husband is dead, and suitors are beginning to knock at her door.

No one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’ empty throne—not yet. But everyone waits for the balance of power to tip, and Penelope knows that any choice she makes could plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war. Only through cunning, wit, and her trusted circle of maids, can she maintain the tenuous peace needed for the kingdom to survive.

This is the story of Penelope of Ithaca, famed wife of Odysseus, as it has never been told before. Beyond Ithaca’s shores, the whims of gods dictate the wars of men. But on the isle, it is the choices of the abandoned women—and their goddesses— that will change the course of the world.

Something a little bit different today. This week’s book is Ithaca by Claire North. It’s a reinterpretation of the classic Odysseus myth told from the perspective of Penelope, his wife.

The great city of Troy has fallen, yet many years after the final battle, Odysseus, the ruler of Ithaca, has still not returned home.  A power vacuum has grown in his absence. From across Greece, all manner of worthy, self-appointed suitors flock to Ithaca shores. Their potential prize? Penelope, the queen without a king. The rules of hospitality are such that Penelope can turn no one away. She must be a gracious host to an ever-increasing shower of ne’er do wells. The men spend their days debating who is the best choice to be the new king and spend their nights eating and drinking away what is left of the royal stores. Amid all this testosterone-infused chest-beating, Penelope makes plans of her own.

Each suitor views himself as the hero of his own story. There is barely one among them who isn’t utterly consumed by the need for power or fame. Penelope, well aware she would be unable to win a physical conflict against these blowhards, begins an extended battle of wits. She is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure Ithaca thrives. Penelope has learned to lead in her husband’s absence. Various advisors and council members pontificate about this and that whilst the queen deftly guides with a subtle hand. A quiet word here and suitably placed suggestion there is all it takes to convince the men they are the ones having all the bright ideas.

Penelope’s son, Telemachus is also beguiled by the prospect of legacy and power. On the cusp of manhood, the opportunity to write his own legend entices him. Telemachus also dreams of being a hero in his own right, of stepping out of his father’s long shadow. While Odysseus is absent, Telemachus is the man of the house and it is only right and proper he should be in charge. How could his mother possibly hope to comprehend the nuances of leadership?

When the politics of another kingdom washes up on Ithaca’s shores, matters are further complicated. Penelope finds herself embroiled in another royal family’s dynastic woes. Like the consummate plate spinner that she is, Penelope has learned to roll with the punches and endeavours to turn further problems to her advantage.

The goddess Hera serves as the Ithaca’s narrator and her divine perspective offers fresh insight into the petty affairs of us mere mortals. The assembled deities of the Greek pantheon view us with curiosity; sometimes benevolent, other times wrathful. Penelope’s life becomes an obsession for Hera. It turns out the gods and goddesses are just as flawed as the humans who worship them. The petty rivalries of Mount Olympus also have consequences on the island.

Regular readers of my reviews already know I’m a huge fan of Claire North’s writing. The End of the Day remains one of my favourite novels. Like its predecessors, Ithaca is another superbly crafted piece of storytelling. North has real skill when it comes to creating her characters. Penelope is a perfect example. Observant, quick-witted and far smarter than any man, she runs rings around them all. Her only real challenges come from her female counterparts. There are some fascinating moments where the inner turmoil of Penelope is laid bare. The woman, the wife, the mother and the queen all fight for supremacy. That depth of character and exploration of the human condition strikes me as the trickiest of things to capture, but the author makes it look easy*.

Ithaca is published by Orbit Books and is available now. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. As an added bonus, I’ve also just discovered some wondrous news; a sequel called House of Odysseus is set to follow. This won’t be the last we see of Penelope. How very splendid. I cannot wait for more.

My musical recommendation to accompany Ithaca is the suitably Mediterranean soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey by The Flight. The various drums, dulcimers, bouzoukis and panpipes add an evocative tone that compliments the novel perfectly.

*I don’t imagine for a second that it is.

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