BLOG TOUR presented by Ace, Berkley, and Penguin Random House
By: Lauren J.A. Bear
Published: August 8, 2023
Genre: Fantasy, Folklore, Mythology, Retellings
…we gave our names to the guards and thus, for the first time, to the human world.
“Stheno. Euryale. Medusa.”
As daughters of two of the oldest sea deities, we were received with reverence and more than a bit of curiosity, (Third Episode: Stheno).
Say whatever you want about mythology and the countless retellings of them, there is one main reason these tales still exist and are continued to be passed on through posterity: they are entertaining! No matter the country or the region of origin of the mythological tale, if it is one we’ve heard of before and/or one that sounds that it’ll be good, then we want to hear them! The tale of Medusa is one of the most infamous ones in humanity to the point where the audience knows Medusa might not have deserved the “punishment” cast upon her. Another mystery surrounding Medusa regards her sisters—whose names many do not know. What was their relationship with Medusa? Why were they punished alongside her? What happened to them after Medusa was slaughtered? In Lauren J.A. Bear’s debut novel—Medusa’s Sisters—we are presented with a believable variant of how Medusa and her sisters became forever known as “the Gorgons.”
There are 3 Gorgons, but the protagonists in this narrative are both Stheno and Euryale—the first and the second born (respectively) daughters of a set of triplets, and two of the many children of Phorcys and Ceto, 2 of the oldest sea deities. It should be mentioned that for some “unknown” reason, Medusa was born mortal, which means her sisters and her other siblings—particularly Stheno—cherish her to the point of overprotectiveness. And, before they became Gorgons, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa were able to pass as “human” which the sisters would use to their advantage when they decide to travel and to live amongst the mortals in their cities. This decision would lead the sisters on a path full of tragedy, but they were willing to take the opportunity when it was presented to them. The sisters travel to Thebes where they meet and they mingle with Cadmus, Harmonia, and their children: Ino, Agave, Autonoë, Semele, and Polydorus. While in Athens, the sisters meet Erastus, Thales, and the gods Athena and Poseidon. Afterwards, they meet Orion and Merope, which occurs during the sisters’ exile. And, through the sisters, the audience learns about Danaë’s and Perseus’ story (which have some parallels to the Gorgons’ story). As the sisters explore the mortal world, the audience learns about the personality of each sister. Medusa wants to experience life as her fellow mortals do (which she does fortunately and unfortunately) before she dies; Euryale wants to be loved, so she sets off to learn the art and the passion of love; and, Stheno wants to be with her sisters. Stheno realizes she and her sisters will never return to where they were born, but she wants them to stay together. And, each sister gets what she desires, yet they “downplay” the hubris of the Olympians (who don’t give a damn about their family tree) until they find themselves as tools for a dispute between 2 of them. Afterwards, the sisters must find a new way to survive, and they must do so together.
There are 2 plots in this narrative, and anyone who is familiar with Greek mythology already knows what happens to Medusa. This is not a plot but a fixed fragment that is tandem with the story. Hence, the first plot surrounds the lives of Medusa’s sisters, Stheno and Euryale, from before. The audience learns about their lives amongst the oldest deities, then amongst the Titans, then amongst the Olympians and the humans—particularly the Heroes. It becomes clear to the sisters that although they are amongst the oldest of all of the immortals, they have as much power as the mortals (which, is none). The second plot delves into what happens to Stheno and Euryale after Medusa is murdered. This is when the fictional part of the mythological retelling takes place. Before, the story was about Medusa and her sisters. After Medusa’s death, her sisters have to learn how to live without her, and learn how to survive as the monsters they were changed into. This presents an interesting turn of events because Medusa wasn’t the only “monster” slain by a “Hero,” and we never thought about Medusa’s sisters after Medusa died. There is one subplot in this narrative, and it serves as both a cautionary tale and as a trigger warning: toxic masculinity and violence against women. Medusa was a victim of men of power, but she is not the only one. Throughout the narrative, the audience learns of the other female victims of men (both mortal and immortal) and how the men get away with their mistreatment of females while the females are left with the consequences including the blame. This subplot is necessary for both plots because it highlights a consistent, yet a disturbingly familiar theme and issue that has continued alongside the myth of Medusa.
The narrative is presented from the points-of-view of both Stheno and Euryale. The narrative style is different for both sisters. Stheno’s narrative is told in first person and Euryale’s narrative is told in third person limited; in addition, the sequence is presented chronologically in the past tense. The differences in P.O.V.s further distinguishes the two sisters from one another. Given that both narratives present the streams-of-consciousness from both Stheno and Euryale, the audience believes both of them are reliable narrators. The narrative style between the two sisters is what keeps the audience engaged in the story, and makes the narrative easy to follow.
The style Laruen J.A. Bear uses for Medusa’s Sisters is not only another mythological retelling, but also has (literal) elements that one can argue reminds them of reading these myths from older variants which were translated. In other words, one who has read any “older” translation of an ancient epic tale will notice the similarities in style between those myths and this retelling. One example of this is the use of epithets—“an adjective or adjectival phrase used to describe a distinctive quality of a person of thing” (p.113)—throughout the narrative to describe all of the characters from the Titans, “clever Prometheus and scatterbrained Epimetheus”; the Olympians (and their children), “the regal Harmonia”; and, the humans and the heroes, “Europa’s heroic brother, Cadmus,” are all examples of how everyone else views these individuals—mortal and immortal. Another example is the use of both alliteration—“the repetition of a speech sound in a sequence of nearby words, applied only to consonants” (p.10), and assonance—“the repetition of identical or similar vowels” (p.11). The repeated use of these literary elements enhances the story by entrancing the audience; “decadent and dangerous” and “oaths and officiants” are some of the many repetitive usages of these terms which add a layer of lyrics to the narrative. The mood in this novel is dread. Medusa is one of the most infamous and the most tragic tales in mythology worldwide; but, she is not the only “victim” of the Greek Gods. Many other familiar names from this pantheon, who are mentioned and/or introduced in this story, met tragic ends after they involved themselves with the Olympians, especially the women. Each introduction to each character adds a sense of dread because we know their end will not be a good one. The tone in this novel is insight. The author is retelling Medusa’s story through her sisters—who we all knew about while forgetting about them simultaneously—who were with her from their birth to her death. It is through Stheno and Euryale that we learn more of what might have happened to their sister and to other individuals they knew.
The appeal for Medusa’s Sisters will be a positive, even though it’ll take some time for readers to read it. I say this because this (debut) book is the latest addition to the mythological retelling subgenre, especially within the Greek myths. So, fans of Madeline Miller, Jennifer Saint, Claire North, and Pat Barker; as well as fans of Clytemnestra, A Thousand Ships, and Stone Blind should enjoy this book. In addition, fans of mythological retellings from other regions of the world such as: The Witch and the Tsar, The Winternight Trilogy, The Celestial Kingdom series, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, and The Stardust Thief should read this book, too. Medusa’s Sisters is another example on how mythology continues to impact posterity and influence new stories. I’m already looking forward to reading the author’s next book, Mother of Rome (and, I believe I know what that story is going to be about).
Medusa’s Sisters is a strong debut novel and an immersive retelling of one of the most notorious individuals in mythology. While the narrative was engaging, it wasn’t anything new in a known subgenre of speculative fiction. Nevertheless, the narrative is very well-written and enjoyable. Fans and readers of Greek mythology should not miss out on reading this book.
My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).
Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed., Wadsworth, 2012.