The Shadow of Perseus Book Review

Full disclosure: I was given a free eARC copy of this book by Dutton Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

For many years, there have been plenty of retellings of famous stories, whether they are classic novels, fairy tales, myths, etc. The most well-known ones offer a new perspective and insight on the themes present in the original material. The most common of these is the feminist view because let’s face it, a lot of the tales that we know of were written by men and celebrate men (for the most part). Today’s book The Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood falls into this perspective as it displays the views of the women sidelined in the famous Greek myth. It’s not always effective, but it offers lots of insight on female agency as well as the power of stories and how people concoct theirs, even if they are false.

The Shadow of Perseus is about the three women in the story of Perseus. Danae is his mother who was cast out of her homeland thanks to a prophecy foretelling her unborn child was going to cause the death of her father, the king of Argos. Stranded in a remote fishing village, she strives to make a new life for herself and her son. Medusa is a member of the Gorgons – a reclusive band of women who live deep in the woods. She has cut off all contact from the outside world until she meets an injured stranger named Perseus in the forest. Andromeda is a member of a nomadic tribe. When her mother brags about Andromeda’s beauty, a harsh sandstorm threatens to destroy their way of life, so she volunteers herself as a sacrifice to appease the gods and end the storm. However, Perseus interferes and puts her on a new path. As Perseus becomes more obsessed with the fulfillment of his destiny, his heroic journey casts violence and destruction in the three women’s lives. They have to reclaim their voices for a better future even as Perseus tries to silence them.

Before reading this book, I knew little about the Perseus myth. The only real thing I was familiar with was that he was the one who decapitated Medusa, yet I only found that out when I was doing research. As a result, a lot of my perspective on the book stems from not knowing the story that well.

With that being said, I found that the most divisive aspect of this novel is the removal of the fantastical elements of the myth. In other words, there’s no winged sandals nor a reflective shield that would allow Perseus to see Medusa without turning him to stone. Also, Zeus is not Perseus’s father (that we know of). On one hand, I see why Heywood did this. In her “A Note on Setting” section, she wanted to make the story as historically accurate as possible. This is apparent in the locations used and the different languages that the characters speak in. Also, Andromeda is a dark-skinned woman, so thank you Claire Heywood for not whitewashing her! I see this as subverting some of the more well-known aspects of the myth as well. For example, I wasn’t expecting Medusa’s head full of snakes to actually be a gold crown containing those reptiles and representing her worth despite what had happened to her. In addition, stripping the supernatural elements further reveals the darker aspects of the story, mainly the anger that Perseus feels for being deprived of his needs and destiny even against the will of others. Heywood omits how Perseus used Medusa’s head to turn Atlas into stone after the latter refused the former hospitality. Come on! Atlas had a ton of weight on his shoulders. Can you really blame him for refusing Perseus?

On the other hand, myths, legends, and fairy tales always have fantasy elements. Many of the retellings like Darling Girl by Liz Michalski and The Match Girl by Rebecca F. Kennedy (the latter from the Once Upon a Winter anthology) retain those aspects because they are familiar with audiences who had grown up knowing the original tales. Removing those almost makes the earlier story unrecognizable. Can you have a Peter Pan retelling without at least mentioning flying or pixie dust? Likewise, I can see why people are irked by the removal of Perseus’s winged sandals, mirror-like shield, Medusa’s ability to turn men into stone if they see her face-to-face, and Zeus not being his father. Heywood could’ve kept the supernatural elements while still aiming for historical accuracy.

The way the plot articulates the feminist aspects have some reviewers divided as well. Some love how the book gives Danae, Medusa, and Andromeda agency in their stories, yet others still found them to be weak due to all the abuse Perseus inflicts on them. It doesn’t help that a grown-up Perseus has almost no redeeming qualities, so this makes the book a little harder to get through. Female strength and feminism in of itself look differently depending on who one asks. It could be female characters fighting others with swords, using wit to overcome the naysayers, reading, and/or being human. Nevertheless, all of them involve them taking charge of their destinies in some form. 

In The Shadow of Perseus, the three main characters suffer and struggle, but because it’s their stories, readers get to see what they are thinking as they try to figure out what they are going to do. And sometimes, they make some really stupid decisions. For instance, Danae allows a peasant from a nearby village whom she has known for a short amount of time to come into her prison cell and make love to her after part of the roof falls down. He was her only source of company, and she enjoyed it. Secondly, Medusa permits Perseus to stay in her cave because she feels she could trust him despite the warnings that her Gorgon sisters give and being sexually abused in the past. She didn’t know what Perseus was going to react when she eventually told him to leave. Everybody makes dumb choices even if others completely understand where they are coming from. Other times, the female protagonists decide to do things that modern audiences might not gel with. While stuck in the ship as Perseus’s wife, Andromeda figures that if she can feed his ego, he won’t hurt her as much. This fawning is not exactly the most ideal way of handling an abusive relationship, but it is a survival tactic. Moreover, Danae and Andromeda bond over their pain and discover a way to get Perseus to listen to them, especially when they’re on their way back to Argos. Readers might enjoy it more if they have a broader view of what feminism is.

There are two main strengths that the novel has. It’s a quick read for the most part. It contains short chapters that readers can get through in a small amount of time. Most importantly, it offers some great insight into stories. Besides female agency, the other main theme is the power of stories, specifically how they make or break someone. When he turns 18, Perseus is sent to spend a year working on a ship. He’s not taken seriously at first, so he asserts that he can claim the snake-filled head of Medusa. Even though it’s not really that, Perseus still persuades and brags to others afterward that it was and shows it off to demonstrate his own manly power. In addition, he proclaims that he rescued Andromeda from the storm while she was chained up although he actually stole her while she was sacrificing herself to save her people. Nevertheless, he still tells other people that he freed her regardless. This and the musical Hamilton contain some of the most nuanced views on how stories are told.

Overall, The Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood may not be the most unique feminist retelling of a classic tale, but it provides some worthy insight on the power of stories. The removal of the supernatural elements has and will continue to divide readers, especially if they know the myth of Perseus by heart. At the same time, it shows how stories get made and who gets to tell them, no matter how distorted they can get. Although I wouldn’t recommend this for readers who love the Perseus myth and retellings of Greek mythology in general, I would suggest it for those who like feminist versions of famous tales, those who are getting into Greek mythology, and those who like insightful commentary on storytelling. The book is out tomorrow, February 21, so get it at your local library or bookstore!

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

3 thoughts on “The Shadow of Perseus Book Review

  1. I love Greek Myth retellings, but I definitely favor novels that keep the fantasy element strong like The Song of Achilles. At the same time, I understand trying to be as historically accurate as possible. Both sides make sense, just depends on what you fancy. 🙂 Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

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