The following review is based on an advanced reading copy I received from the publisher.
I have to be honest: The Iliad has always confused me a little. So many gods interfering with peoples’ lives; so many characters, human and immortal; war-making, armor clanking, blood and gore… what can I say? My attention wavered. If only there was a way to experience this fascinating story from a different perspective…
Well, now there is. Emily Hauser’s debut novel For the Most Beautiful zooms in on the two female characters – Krisayis and Briseis – whose stories form the basis of the The Iliad’s drama. Yet in the epic, the women appear only sporadically (Krisayis exits the story in Book 1!). The novel explores the events leading up to their abduction and enslavement, and plumbs the depths of their fear and grief as the world they know comes crashing around them.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of two parallel narrators, a refreshing approach that adds complexity and nuance to the tale. It shows how the two women – of diverse backgrounds, and at different stages in their lives when the Greek invasion occurs – work their way past victimhood and take matters of survival and revenge into their own hands. The book asks – as does Homer’s epic – what are the limits of our control over our lives? Do we have a choice, or does fate determine everything? That question remains – perhaps forever – an open one, but the protagonists of For the Most Beautiful succeed in charting their own course, though they do so in very different ways.
Interspersed among the women’s tales are scenes set atop Mount Olympus and Mount Ida, seats of the gods. From there, they observe, comment on, and interfere with events down on earth. Their existence is opulent and leisurely, but underneath the gilded facades the divinities – though all-powerful and immortal – nonetheless share a great many characteristics with the humans with whose lives and fates they play as they please. And so they are vain, petty, vindictive, disloyal, duplicitous, reckless and unprincipled. Indeed, at times their interactions sound less like a dignified council of the highest beings, and more like shady backroom dealings of modern-day, real-life mobsters. As such, they provide the much-needed moments of comic relief.
Written with clarity and feeling, the book is an exciting beginning of a new series that will hopefully make the classic Homeric tale more accessible to general audiences who often struggle with the dense language of awkward translations. But even more importantly, it gives a voice to overlooked or ignored narratives, not only showing the events from the female participants’ perspective, but exposing the real consequences of wars so glorified by ancient epics.
It is a lesson that is as relevant today as it was three thousand years ago.