THE PLOT: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes is about the women of the Trojan War. A retelling of the Odyssey and Iliad from the perspective of the female characters, it’s built on the premise that heroes aren’t only men. From Creusa searching for her husband Aeneas as Troy burns, to Briseis being forced to be Achilles’ slave, it focuses on the minor characters who have often been overlooked. And, it brings in some of the big hitters such as Penelope, Clytemnestra and the infamous woman whose face launch’d a thousand ships…. Helen.
RATING: A classics nerd, I’m giving this novel a completely biased five stars. I’ve read The Odyssey more than ten times and gone on a solo tour of Ancient Greek sites, so I have a lot of baseline knowledge about the subject matter. Yet, this novel felt fresh and exciting – I was enthralled by this unique spin on some of my favourite stories.
GOOD BITS: My favourite aspect was the mix of human and divine characters. It starts with the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope, complaining about how the male bards tell her stories. This metapoetic aspect plays on the dynamic between author and narrator, as well as the central question – who is missing from the story, and why. My favourite characters were Brieseis/Chryseis, Hecabe/Andromache and the Trojan Women, and the Gods (Aphrodite/Hera/Athene, Thetis, Eris, Themis). And Clytemnestra… and Iphigenia. Soooo, I pretty much enjoyed the whole book!
NOT GOOD BITS: There are multiple perspectives in the novel, which makes the pacing dynamic as it jumps quickly between characters. However, I wanted Helen of Troy to have a bigger role. Helen is portrayed with the Trojan Woman after the city has fallen. The author has made an interesting choice not to show Helen on her own, and to emphasise her divine nature (choosing to represent Helen as a daughter of Zeus, rather than the mortal daughter of Spartan King Tyndareus – two divergent forms of the myth).
This is even more complex as the Olympian Gods are shown to be petty and human in the novel, so stressing Helen’s divinity feels at odds with a chance to depict her mortal fallibility and add more nuance to her decision to leave her husband. Given the title of the novel, I expected a whole (and probably the final) chapter dedicated to her point of view.
Helen’s perspective has been written over and over again by other modern authors so perhaps Natalie Haynes thought there wasn’t much to add? But given Penelope, who has similarly been portrayed in many guises over the centuries, has a large role in the book (through a very original format of letters to her missing husband Odysseus), I thought Helen would get a similar treatment.
OVERALL: I loved it. I felt it had sufficient explanation of the background for those who don’t have as much preexisting knowledge of ancient Greek myths and Trojan women. I’d definitely recommend this novel to learn more about the ancient world, and if you want a badass feminist book.