Thursday, July 14, 2022

Review [Book]: Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane

Wrath Goddess Sing is exactly what a myth retelling ought to be, twisting the original narrative to make it into something new and fascinating.

Cover art by Marcela Bolivar

A note on pronouns: in this book, Achilles is a trans woman. I use female pronouns for her when referring to the Achilles of the story, but occasionally refer to myth-Achilles as “he”, as is the case in original texts. I do my best to differentiate these so as not to misgender the Achilles of the book.

This is possibly one of the best Greek myth retellings I have encountered in the last five years. It works well on so many levels, but critically, it succeeds on two main criteria. First, it reinvests Greek myth with a sense of wonder, mystery and mysticism. Greek myth has become slightly prosaic to a lot of readers, just stories, familiar ones that we learn as children, so well-trodden as to be unremarkable, and by making the war among the gods cryptic and inhuman, Deane has reinvigorated the mythical atmosphere the stories must originally have had, and which is sometimes palpable but just out of reach when reading the original texts as a modern reader.

Secondly, she has taken something about the myth we know and twisted it, to show us the story same but different. What if? She asks. What then?

Her story centres around Achilles, but not always the Achilles we know already – her Achilles is a trans woman. In some of the original stories, myth-Achilles disguises himself as a woman and hides on Skyros, in an attempt to escape his fate, as it has been foretold that if he fights in the Trojan War, he’ll die young but live on in glory forever, but if he avoids the fight, he will live a long, undistinguished, but happy life. In these stories, he is found out of his disguise by Odysseus, fights in the war, and we all know how it ends. However, Deane’s what if is simply this – what if Achilles wasn’t “disguised” as a woman? What if, on Skyros, she was simply being allowed to live as the woman she always had been, but had been denied the opportunity to embrace? And obviously this has some effect on the character of Achilles as we see her, in contrast to myth-Achilles. She has the arrogance, the rage, the impulsive emotionality, but she also a different view on some aspects of the world, a cautious, sometimes regretful empathy, that when sparked can burn with the same passion as anything myth- or book-Achilles ever cares about. This additional lens on her life also gives an extra layer of explanation to an aspect that has always been part of Achilles’ character – an almost resentful attitude to the world, a fuck-you to it all, a determination to take whatever she can get out of it and the rest be damned – because book-Achilles lives in a world that, originally, refused to accept the person she knew herself to be, and now that they have, she’s not going to let any of them forget it.

Because the book is so centred on Achilles, as so many retellings of the Iliad are, it somewhat lives or dies on how well you get on with her character. In my opinion, this is one of the best interpretations of Achilles as a real, flawed and complicated human that I’ve seen in literature. Her Achilles is raging, arrogant and glorious, god-blessed and fate-touched (whether blessing or curse), just as the Achilles of myth. She is an untouchable demon with the spear, and spares no enemy in the heat of battle. She’s conflicted, self-contradictory, violent, a pain in the arse, vibrant, passionate, deeply caring and full of a rage that will bend the world before her. She’s not a nice person. She’d be a terrible person if she weren’t also incredibly charismatic. You can see, almost immediately, why people hate her and love her in equal measure.

And we get to see the people who love her show us, in detail, why they do so. And in these, there are a great many changes from the stories we know, too, but all the changes feel so thoughtful and deliberate, and they each bring something new to the table. Some people are lovers who we might not expect to see in that regard. Some aren’t who we might have thought to see. And Deane has done something which I find really valuable to see in reinterpretations of Achilles’ story – she’s made her Achilles… I’m going to say bisexual for ease of reference, but perhaps it would be more apt to say that the Achilles of the book has a sexuality more reflective of the different sexual landscape of the ancient world, which is something I really appreciate seeing.

Aside from the characters (and there are plenty of characters who are either entirely new or existing mythological ones who’ve been taken a quarter turn away from our expectations, and all are wonderful), Deane has put an immense amount of work into building her setting. She has drawn on a world that is not Ancient Greece alone, but a Mediterranean connected, by marriage and trade and custom and treaty, linking Greece and its islands with Egypt, the Hittites, the Amazons and more. They speak some of each others’ languages, bear old bonds of friendship, and critically, travel. Troy/Wilusa isn’t just a singular, far off place to go for war and nothing more - it’s a nexus on a complex map, whose alliances and enmities and neutralities matter to the story. The Egypt of the book is a land of rituals and magic - Egypt as seen through the eyes of the ancient Greeks.

That being said, there are anachronisms; an Egyptian princess describes herself as an ethnographer. But they are cheerful, breezy ones, knowing and deliberate, and offhandedly modern statements like Patroclus declaring the Achaians “shit linguists” go hand in hand with the authentically batshit, like trying to decipher and learn the language of dolphins. I can totally see that coming up as an aside in a bit Herodotus. It feels historically very real.

I’m not talking about strict “accuracy”, which is a complex beast in many ways, but instead creating a coherent historical context in which to set the book. While I do value accuracy in historical novels, as soon as you start writing about myth, that accuracy becomes an impossible dream. And so instead, what I value in what Deane has done is the use of historical details – drawing on texts outside of the Iliad like the Milawata letter – to give us a sense of a real place and a real time in which the events might have happened, and to give us lines between characters and historical figures that might be drawn, and might be interesting. It doesn’t have to be true, or accurate, but it has to be plausible and coherent, and at that, Deane has succeeded admirably. Do I think, in a historical sense, that Tyndareus of myth and the Hittite Tudhaliya IV were the same person? No, probably not. But it is neat. It is interesting. In the same way, Deane has changed orthography or implied language-background of some of the names, in ways that might not be strictly true, but they are interesting, and they feed into the feeling she’s giving us for the setting. It works, for the story as we are given it, for the thesis of this interconnected, mythically linked world. And when we’re operating in a mythological, rather than historical, space, it gives us something cool to play with, that serves the story in a way that feels authentic enough. Because there are no truly right answers, in mythology, just the ones that work, the ones that feel like they sing to the facts and stories we know, and catch the same tune, or harmonise, in a way that makes something beautiful.

When we step away from the more “historical” aspects, and look into the divine in her book, Deane has strayed much further from the beaten path. For all the characters’ names aren’t the norm we might be expecting, a groundedly bronze age Trojan War is at least roughly familiar. The gods and their world are less so, though still linking back at times to what we do know. On the one hand, there’s a thread of the sort of mythical thinking that is familiar to anyone who has read the stories of Ancient Greece. Dreams are full of portents, the gods act directly upon the world but their actions are cryptic and strange, sometimes decisive action that affects mortals, sometimes more in the way of omen to be interpreted. Sometimes both. When a ship founders at sea in a storm, is this the gods making their displeasure known, or simply an accident mortals seek to explain? This is known, though Deane does choose to play it up a little harder than is the choice of some retellings.

However, she also tinkers with the hierarchical arrangement of the gods, which brings in some real change, and makes things both simpler and more complex. There are fewer factions with fewer interests brought to bear on the conflict, but they’re not the ones we expect, or where we expect to find them, so we’re left wrong-footed. Achilles is no longer the child of Thetis, a sea goddess who helps throughout the story. Instead, she is the daughter of a mortal woman, Thetis, wife of Peleus, who died in childbirth, and also the daughter of Athena, the Silent One, whose power touches her life and her dreams. Deane conflates the patroness Athena, the Athena who grabs Achilles’ hair in myth to prevent an outburst that would anger Agamemnon, with the more directly patronly and motherly Thetis - again, simpler, but leaving some mystery for us to puzzle at as the story progresses. The story gives us not just Achilles’ life, but also insights into the birth, genealogy, history and very nature of the gods in Deane’s universe, all of which is increasingly strange as the plot progresses. If a reader comes in expecting a faithful reworking of the familiar, this will be a disappointment, but in terms of how it affects the telling of the story, the way the world of the gods is connected up, and how Achilles’ arc progresses, I think all of the choices we see are clearly thoughtful ones, and ones which work together to sell that intensely mystical quality to her divine world. It’s a divine world which evokes the same feelings as Orphic cults – bone-deep strange and deeply numinous.

The divine also draws on the mundane and the historical, in a way I found deeply pleasing – her gods, in her grounded, Bronze Age setting, are weak to “star-metal”, meteoric iron, in a way that seems to signal the shift from a heroic age towards the historic, from a world where gods act on the lives of men and women, to the age we know as verifiable.

And then there’s Helen – character and myth all in one. Helen is… a problem, in Trojan War retellings. How do we balance acknowledging her agency or lack of it with her culpability, or lack of it. Is she victim or perpetrator? Is she the architect of her fate, does she want a war, does she love Paris in truth, or is she merely a prize in a competition over an apple thrown by Strife? For every retelling, all the way back to the Greeks themselves, there is a difference answer to this problem. Deane has solved it by superseding it - Helen does not become a prize because of an apple thrown by Strife… Helen is the apple, and the prize, and strife, all together. She is complicit and she is a pawn. Like much in the book, she is not tied down to one single definition, and her story and fate are just as much in flux as Achilles’, and everything else divine in the tale.

Which is not to say that the story doesn’t touch base with the one we know – the threads wander back and forth, but the key nexus points - Briseis gone to Agamemnon, Achilles’ refusal to fight, Patroclus in Achilles’ armour fighting in her place - happen, but the paths to and from then range away into the mists, becoming strange shadows of themselves. The myth is always present – it is a retelling after all – but it is a retelling in the truest sense, because the story has been reshaped in the telling to suit its needs and purposes.

In short – in a review which has been anything but – Deane has gone into the incredibly crowded field of current mythological retellings, and blown them all out of the water by doing something ambitious, powerful, meaningful and different. Her story not only recasts Achilles, but imagines a Bronze Age Mediterranean with a community of trans women – her kallai, “the beautiful ones” – and some trans men who exist in a grounded, connected and intensely mythical world that delights and enchants at every turn. While reading, you can feel the love and the research that has gone into the authenticity, while at the same time the creativity and ambition that has gone into the divergences, all of which come together to form a beautiful, coherent whole.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10 

Bonuses: +1 for the occasionally hilarious anachronistic turn of phrase, including describing Achilles’ slightly murderous warhorses as “divine horses, gods among the horse race, destroyers of their enemies, brave horses of abnormal pride and dread, good boys”

Penalties: none that I could find

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Reference:  Maya Deane, Wrath Goddess Sing [HarperCollins, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea