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Review copy provided by Netgalley. The galley is copyrighted 2013, but Goodreads says a version was published in 1997. Content note:
Some discussion of rape, murder, and mutilation.
This is a hard book to review because my reaction to it is basically, "Eh."
It's not a terrible book, it's not a great book, it's not off-putting, it's not absorbing. Typically, my rule for deciding if I want to watch a TV show is, "Is this more fun than reading a book?" For this book, I would much rather have been watching TV.
Euripides wrote the version of Medea
best known to modern audiences: the princess of Colchis falls in love with the adventurer Jason and betrays her family -- to the point of murdering her brother -- to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece. She then has a checkered career murdering people for Jason's advancement, which ultimately leads to him becoming king of Corinth. Eventually, Jason decides to abandon her in favor of another princess. (I am not sure I have ever read a single version of this myth in which Jason is not a total schmuck.) In revenge, Medea kills the other woman and her own children. In earlier versions, Medea kills the children by accident or the children are killed by the citizens of Corinth.
In most versions, there is yet more wandering and killing and attempted killing. Most notably Medea marries Aegeus and then tries to poison Theseus when he comes to claim his birthright. (This is included in The King Must Die,
because sadly Mary Renault does not seem to have ever encountered a misogynistic trope she didn't like.) In most versions, there is yet more wandering and killing and attempted killing. Most notably she marries Aegeus and then tries to poison Theseus when he comes to claim his birthright. (This is included in The King Must Die,
because sadly Mary Renault does not seem to have ever encountered a misogynistic trope she didn't like.) Medea is often said to have escaped from both Corinth and Athens in a chariot drawn by dragons. I wonder where she stabled and fed the dragons in between witchy midnight escapes. Possibly she just borrowed them from Hekate in her times of need.
Most versions of Medea's history end with her returning to Colchis and killing her uncle to restore her father to the throne. Presumably her father felt that this made up for that one time she murdered her brother and chopped his body into little pieces to scatter in the sea.
Medea is sworn to the goddess Hekate from birth:
My mother gave birth to me in the darkness under the earth and died in doing so. I loved the velvety blanket of night before my dazzled eyes ever encountered light. And when I did, they say I wept, and the people said, ‘Here is a true daughter of Hekate!’
She is trained by the priestess Trioda in a Colchis which seems to have only traces of a matriarchal past. Men must marry the eldest daughter of the royal lineage to become king, but the only women with much power are the priestesses of Hekate, who ensure their influence with their knowledge of herbs. Medea learns healing, poisons, and tricks to soothe wild animals -- the last is especially critical to the annual ritual in which the king of Colchis must prove his mastery over an untamed bull.
Greenwood's version at first seems to be a battle of the sexes story, because we see several different cultural approaches to gender relations, particularly gendered violence. Medea goes on a migration with the Sauromatae, a tribe of Amazonian Scyths, which is by far the most interesting part of the book. She learns how to ride, makes friends with other women, and learns more about Sauromatae culture. Sauromatae women, she's told, can't marry until they've killed a man. Every year they meet the Pardalate tribe, whose young warriors fight the Sauromatae women for the chance to kidnap them as brides. Medea watches in horror until she realizes this is not a battle but a ritual:
No one was trying to kill. Openings for lethal blows were passed over in favour of dramatic broadsides, narrow misses and displays of skilled horsemanship. In fact, the riders were assessing one another, changing partners until they found one whom they either liked or disliked enough to want to mate with or humiliate. The young men were risking injury and a shameful loss of hair and skin, which might possibly prove fatal if infected, but not otherwise. The young women were perfectly capable of fighting off unacceptable suitors, but were afforded the chance of leaving the Sauromatae if they wished and joining the Pardalatae, whose customs were different and might be more to their taste.
Alternating with Medea's narration is the narrative of Nauplios, a fisherman's son who is chosen to be Jason's companion when Jason is fostered to the centaurs. Greenwood is writing a historical novel, not a fantasy, so here the centaurs are a tribe of misogynistic horsemen who share their women in common; to celebrate the manhood proven by a hunt, the centaurs hold a ritual in which the young men capture the girls of the tribe and rape them. Later, during the voyage of the Argo,
the Argonauts winter on the island of Lemnos:
‘The women of Lemnos have murdered all their men,’ said Nestor impressively. ‘The men were afflicted by some god and refused to go near their women, choosing Thracian concubines instead. The women, led by their queen, Hypsipyle, rose one night and murdered all the men on the island.[...] That is the Lemnian Deed, the worst that ever the Argives knew.’
Fortunately for the Argonauts, the Lemnians are willing to forbear killing them in return for stud services.
Once Medea casts her lot in with Jason, she is dissatisfied with the limited role of Greek women -- which culminates in her abandonment by Jason. After her children are murdered, she goes on a pilgrimage, seeking peace and absolution from the Oracle at Delphi and from Herakles, who here figures as dedicated to the service of women.
The major problems with the book are the following:
* Medea falls madly in love with Jason at first sight and is willing to abandon everything she knows to be with him. This is part of the original myth. Greenwood is unable to make it convincing as part of a novel, although she does indicate strongly that Medea mistakes lust for love.
* While refuting the story that Medea is driven to murder by jealousy and rejection, Greenwood includes two other women who do exactly that -- one who spends a lifetime solitary and embittered, and ultimately dethrones a king, and one who murders her own husband. As a revision of misogynistic mythology, this leaves a lot to be desired.
* Medea commits many violent acts during the course of the novel and ultimately comes to believe the deaths of her children are her punishment for these deeds. We see the transition she makes from a young girl who has never injured anyone to someone willing to kill in self-defense, but we never see the transition where she becomes willing to commit cold-blooded murder or, worse, manipulate others into doing so. When she kills her half-brother, he's already threatened to marry her to gain the throne and attempted to rape her, as well as attempting to kill their father and to murder Jason under guest-right.
Jason originally quests for the Golden Fleece to prove his right to the throne of Iolkos, which is currently held by his uncle, Pelias. When Pelias refuses to turn over the throne, Medea murders him. That is, she persuades his daughters that chopping him into pieces and cooking him in a cauldron will make him immortal.
This does not work.
The daughters hang themselves and Jason and Medea flee Iolkos.
Greenwood skips these events and goes straight to the flight from Iolkos. We never learn how a girl who was willing to kill in what was more or less self-defense became willing to kill in defense of her husband's ambition, let alone with such cruelty and manipulation. We are simply presented with a Medea who goes on to poison other rivals of Jason's at his behest.
I would kind of like to know what happened there.
* Nauplios basically exists to be Medea's reward at the end. He is there so she can form a marriage of equals that supercedes all the unequal and violent gender relations we've seen before. I would rather have had less Nauplios and more of Medea's character development.