House of Odysseus by Claire North

August 24, 2023

Please note, that House of Odysseus is a direct sequel to Ithaca. It is highly likely that if you’ve not read the first book what follows might contain something akin to spoilers. Dont say I didnt warn you!

In the palace of Odysseus, a queen lies dreaming . . .

On the isle of Ithaca, queen Penelope maintains a delicate balance of power. Many years ago, her husband Odysseus sailed to war with Troy and never came home. In his absence, Penelope uses all her cunning to keep the peace—a peace that is shattered by the return of Orestes, King of Mycenae, and his sister Elektra.

Orestes’ hands are stained with his mother’s blood. Not so long ago, the son of Agamemnon took Queen Clytemnestra’s life on Ithaca’s sands. Now, wracked with guilt, he grows ever more unhinged. But a king cannot be seen to be weak, and Elektra has brought him to Ithaca to keep him safe from the ambitious men of Mycenae.

Penelope knows destruction will follow in his wake as surely as the furies circle him. His uncle Menelaus, the blood-soaked king of Sparta, hungers for Orestes’ throne—and if he can seize it, no one will be safe from his violent whims.

Trapped between two mad kings, Penelope must find a way to keep her home from being crushed by the machinations of a battle that stretches from Mycenae and Sparta to the summit of Mount Olympus itself. Her only allies are Elektra, desperate to protect her brother, and Helen of Troy, Menelaus’ wife. And watching over them all is the goddess Aphrodite, who has plans of her own.

Each woman has a secret, and their secrets will shape the world . . .

Penelope has proven she is more than a match for any potential suitor but now she faces a new challenge. The fallout from the events in Ithaca continues to cause her no end of problems. Most of ancient Greece has decided Penelope’s tiny island kingdom is the perfect setting to hash out the politics for the entire region. With her husband still lost on his legendary journey, it is up to Penelope to keep the peace, unravel any hostile intent, and remain the perfect hostess. Not an easy task at the best of times but made all the more complicated when you are viewed as nothing more than a lowly woman. 

Penelope, never daunted by a challenge, uses her perceived weaknesses as a strength. While the menfolk wax lyrical or blow hot air on every subject, our heroine is subtly manipulating those around her. The fact that none of the men even notice is the true mark of her skill.  

I think almost without exception, the men in House of Odysseus are all self-absorbed, self-important idiots. None of them seem to be able to look any further than the end of their own nose. Menelaus is a perfect example. He cannot even begin to comprehend that anyone could be quite as clever as he is. The king of Sparta views all other men as potential enemies and women as little more than possessions. He is an utterly contemptible alpha male type who has clearly never been told he can’t have something in his entire life. 

As an aside, it’s the mark of a great writer when they can make you feel empathy towards horrible characters. I very nearly felt sorry for Menelaus at one point…nearly. 

As events escalate, a battle of wits between the Spartan king and the Ithacan queen ensues and it is riveting to watch them trying to outthink one another. 

Actually, thinking about it, I guess not all the menfolk are quite as bad as all that. There are a few outliers. Penelope’s wily old father-in-law, Laertes, is a hoot. The old king of Ithaca prefers living out his retirement on his pig farm. That said, if there is an opportunity to cause any manner of regal mischief he is always happy to oblige. Just because you’re a bit long in the tooth doesn’t mean you immediately forget how to play the game of politics. Laertes has seen and done it all. He’s a stubborn, intractable rogue who likes stirring the pot whenever he gets the chance. His darkly comic actions ensure he lights up just about every scene he appears in. 

Once again, Claire North pulls off another perfect bait and switch, similar to what I’ve seen her achieve so flawlessly in the past. When I started reading House of Odysseus, I was on confident ground. I was sat happily thinking “I’m reading a retelling of a Greek myth retold from a female perspective written by one of my favourite authors”. Turns out, I was wrong. House of Odysseus is so much more than that. Somewhere along the way, a sneaky whodunnit wormed its way into the middle of the story. Like all the best detectives, Penelope is in a race against time to uncover the truth. On top of that she has to save herself, all her subjects, and by extension, most of the population of the surrounding islands. Simple eh?

Ithaca and House of Odysseus are a perfectly executed duology. Can someone please just let Claire North continue to rewrite ancient legends any way she wants? It’s such blissful stuff, I loved every word. I couldn’t be happier. I feel blessed, the book gods and goddesses have smiled upon me. 

House of Odysseus is published by Orbit and is available now. Highly recommended. Do yourself a favour though. If you haven’t read Ithaca, seek it out first. House of Odysseus is great, but with its companion novel, it is truly sublime. 

I thought long and hard about what soundtrack I should pair this novel with. After much consideration, I’ve decided to go with Apotheon* by Marios Aristopoulos. Based on the title of the album and the composer’s name I’m sure you’ll be stunned when I tell you it has a suitably ancient Greek vibe. Seriously though, it is a great fit with the narrative and adds an additional layer to Claire North’s already evocative writing. 

*For the curious amongst you apotheon means “one who is exalted or elevated to a state of godhood”. Look at that, if you’ve read this far you’ve just learned a new thing. Well done you.

One Comment

  • David August 24, 2023 at 10:45 am

    I have to say, I also loved Laertes – at one point he almost seems to be channeling PG Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth in his desire to be back on the farm with his pigs! A glorious book all round (and yes, Penelope’s sleuthing – complete with one last question – is also brilliant.

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