I was absolutely expecting to love this book, to the point where even now I’m looking at with a sort of confused squint, questionning whether I’m sure that we didn’t get along. I love novels about lesser-known Greek figures, and I think it’s really clever when entire myths are retold from the perspective of those few characters. Of those myths, Jason and the Argonauts is one of my favourites (Troy is my least favourite, if you were wondering) and I was totally on board with it being retold from a female perspective. There’s no getting around, however, the fact that For The Winner and I did just not get on at all.
Plot summary: Some three thousand years ago, in a time before history, the warriors of Greece journeyed to the ends of the earth in the greatest expedition the world had ever seen. One woman fought alongside them.
Abandoned at birth on the slopes of Mount Pelion, Atalanta is determined to prove her worth to the father who cast her aside. Having taught herself to hunt and fight, and disguised as a man, she wins a place on the greatest voyage of that heroic age: with Jason and his band of Argonauts in search of the legendary Golden Fleece.
And it is here, in the company of men who will go down in history as heroes, that Atalanta must battle against the odds – and the will of the gods – to take control of her destiny and change her life forever.
With her unrivalled knowledge and captivating storytelling, Emily Hauser brings alive an ancient world where the gods can transform a mortal’s life on a whim, where warriors carve out names that will echo down the ages . . . and where one woman fights to determine her own fate.
The ‘retelling’ of Jason and the Argonauts. Or, you know, not.
Retellings of myths and legends have the difficult task of sitting in that fuzzy gap between historical fiction and fantasy. Obviously it’s not reciting real events because the myths are fictional in the first place, so it can’t be historical fiction, but then the author can’t take the credit for coming up with the story in the first place because it’s thousands of years old. The former point makes it very difficult to jump up and down squawking ‘That’s not right, that’s not what happened!’ because hey, none of this happened. It doesn’t remove the fact that this is precisely what I want do, however.
I just don’t understand why you’d want to purposefully choose a relatively well-known legend to retell in a lengthy novel… and then change it beyond all comprehension. It’s barely recognisble as the myth of the Golden Fleece, as so much of it is completely different. Not to mention that the Fleece has barely any relevance in the whole story. Atalanta was never supposed to sneak aboard dressed as a man – she was a respected and competant member of the crew on the Argo. Various elements of her ‘proper’ story are shoved in, usually in a way that makes barely any sense. The ending is almost completely the opposite of what really happened (as far as any of this can be said to have ‘really’ happened) and it annoys me. Is it reasonable for this to annoy me? Probably not. But I was expecting the story of Atalanta’s involvement in Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece and that is not what I got.
The odd first person narrative.
The other point that confuses me is Emily Hauser’s choice to write in the first person. It’s a very strange choice and one that I don’t think fits. When you’re writing about a mythological person, a legend, you need them to be strong of heart and swift of foot and all that, which is fine. But when you write in the first person, they’re telling you all this and it doesn’t work. I don’t need an explanation for why she’s so talented, but an objective voice telling me would have been better suited. It feels like a YA heroine telling you how wonderful they are and it comes across as gloaty and lazy.
The clear Young Adult aspects.
It’s actually not the only thing that makes this book seem like it would be more appropriate for teenagers. For one thing, there’s no violence, gore, or sex, although there are references to historic rape. Whilst I obviously doesn’t desperately need these things in my books, the Greeks weren’t exactly famous for their docile chasity and it seems very toned down. Almost tedious. Atalanta herself comes across as very young – she has no adult feelings or emotions, she’s just a bundle of impulsive decision making and impatience. All the characters are very flat and one-sided, even those who are meant to be the key players.
I will say that the prose aspects are written well. The descriptions of the Greek scenery are stunning and bring up the quality of the novel as a whole somewhat. Ms Hauser is clearly able to write very well, but I just don’t understand the majority of the narrative and plot choices that she made. What could have been a feminist and fascinating retelling of Atalanta and the Golden Fleece ended up as an unrecognisable story about a gloaty teenager running through Greece.