Review: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

42595255._sy475_Verdict: Competent enough.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Myth Retelling

Published by Mantle Books, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

In A Thousand Ships, broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective.

This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them…

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash . . .

The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all…

Powerfully told from an all-female perspective, A Thousand Ships gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.

I am, in many ways, the perfect reader for this book: I have been interested in and reading books about the Trojan War for around 20 years, and thus have an emotional connection to these women already and general knowledge about what happened when in this sprawling story. But this also means that when Haynes makes character decisions I do not agree with, I super do not agree with them. My favourite book of all time is Kassandra – which should give you an indication how seriously I adore her. Also, as a side note, my favourite book from last year’s shortlist was The Silence of the Girls (which this book has been compared to without a break – something I will try to avoid in the interest of being fair to this book).

Haynes sets out to retell the story of the Trojan War from the perspectives of the women. She does so unchronologically – something I obviously enjoyed. She tells both from the perspectives of women close to the heart of the original myth and from those more at the periphery. For me personally, the perspectives by women who were allowed to be angry worked the best, while I thought some were less successful in their pettiness. The best parts, hands down were those narrated from the perspectives of goddesses. Haynes lets these creatures be exactly as otherworldly and still relatable as the orginal Greek myths describe them; especially Eris was just wonderfully rendered. I admit that those stories that I had the least fondness for, worked best for me – so maybe I was not the perfect reader after all.

My biggest problem, by far, was Haynes’ treatment of Helen though. I admit that I have a fondness for Helen, so this coloured my reaction, but I just did not enjoy the constant Helen-bashing the other characters indulged in – I found this detracted from what the author set out to do (based on her author’s note at the end). More than one character kept referring to her as “that whore” and this seems – I don’t know – petty and unneccessary at best, super lacking in nuance for sure, sexist at worst. Especially when Calliope (who for me at least reads like a direct author stand-in) admits to being interested in all the women’s stories, except for Helen’s, “who bores her”. I am trying to not blame the book for the marketing it received, but I am unsure whether marketing this as a feminist retelling did it any favours, at least for me.

I wavered between three and four stars for this, but in the end, my pre-existing fondness for the story and the wonderful way she handled the goddesses won out. This is not a book without its flaws but I am glad the longlist finally gave me the push I needed to read this book. I can also only recommend the audiobook, which the author narrates herself, something I always enjoy.

Content warning: It is a myth retelling, so many; the book is however not graphic in its descriptions. Rape (off page mostly), murder, death of loved ones, maiming, slavery.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  2. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel


21 thoughts on “Review: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

    1. I think the two authors set out to do different things. Haynes is very explicit, both in the afterword and in the scenes involving Calliope that the aim is to reframe the story and put women at the centre, whereas I always felt like Barker was more interested in telling a story about agency. Haynes wrote a pretty straight forward retelling, competently done and intricately researched, but for me nothing groundbreaking. (I much prefer Barker’s vision).
      I understand people being dissappointed with the Barker because they expected an all-female cast and they got chapters upon chapters from Achilles’ view point, but by the same measure, here Penelope’s chapters are basically snarkily retold scenes from the Odyssey (I did not mind at all because I LOVED Penelope’s voice). The scope here is much wider as well, swooping in and out of the action and returning to different women at different points in their journey (or sometimes not returning to them at all).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Really interesting! Thank you. I was also a big fan of Silence of the Girls, but I didn’t have much investment in the ‘women’s voices’ angle, so it didn’t come as a big disappointment to have so much from Achilles.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. A great review, I loved reading your thoughts! I am a bit wary of this one because of the way Helen is treated, but this is still one of the books I am most excited about on the list, so I am glad you still enjoyed it despite some flaws!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s mostly a really competent re-telling. It’s not super innovative but I had fun reading it (and apparently that is all we can hope for with this longlist…). But, ugh, why does the author have such a vendetta against Helen?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I’m glad this improved a bit for you. I’m craving another Greek retelling after finishing The Song of Achilles last week, so I’m really looking forward to this one. It’s good to know not to expect a flawless narrative though. And I am now excited for the goddess’ voices! Eagerly awaiting my copy to arrive…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I am also glad this mostly worked out for me in the end, especially because I am sure I will struggle a lot with quite a few of the other longlisted books!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! This is one of the books on the longlist I’m looking forward to reading, so I’m glad you more or less enjoyed it in the end. Although I would also be wary of the Helen bashing… you’d think a novel about women could refrain from pulling other women down. Anyway, I hope to get a copy of this soon. Happy reading with the rest of your list! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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