Ithaca, The Songs of Penelope Book 1

Book Reviews / Wednesday, November 23rd, 2022

By: Claire North
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction/Modern & Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Orbit Books

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“Follow me through the halls of the palace of Odysseus; Follow to hear the stories that the men-poets of greedy kings do not tell.” Claire North, Ithaca

Claire North’s Ithaca is an incredible telling of the tale of Penelope as she awaits the return of her husband, Odysseus from the Trojan War. If you are familiar with the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer’s epic poems written in the 8th century BC, they focus on the men, and in the Odyssey, Odysseus in particular. It’s not a spoiler to say it took twenty years for him to return to Ithaca and to Penelope. Theirs was the love marriage, unusual for that time, though in the Odyssey, you might think Odysseus is a bit of a jerk. Penelope remains loyal to her husband, refusing to believe he is dead, while fighting off suitors who want to marry her and claim the throne. In Ithaca, we are shown Penelope’s side of the story. A story of her cunning, strength, and perseverance that allows her to keep them at bay all those years as she waits for Odysseus. It’s a bold feminist tale that portrays women as smarter and shrewder than they are given credit for at that time. Penelope, in her quiet demeanor, as she must abide by hospitality codes and have these suitors in her home, is planning and plotting with the other women to save Ithaca until her husband returns. I truly enjoyed Ithaca, since I am very familiar with both the Iliad and the Odyssey. We see little of Penelope in those poems, and to read her story was a unique and brilliant novel by Claire North.

The story is told in the first-person narrative on the Queen of the Greek Gods, Hera, Zues’ wife. One needs to understand that most of the Greek gods never got along. There was fighting, infidelity, relationships with mortals, betrayals, favoritism of mortals, and they were basically the most dysfunctional family ever written. Unfortunately, because of all this, it was the mortals who suffered, since the gods could not hurt each other. Part of why Odysseus took ten years to get home was because of the God of the Sea, Poseidon, hated Odysseus because he blinded Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus. On the other hand, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Battle, was helping Odysseus because of his talent in battle and bravery. Who suffered because of this? Penelope and the people of Ithaca. While Hera was not helping Odysseus, she was helping Penelope. Hera was the Goddess Women, Marriage, and Childbirth, and Penelope was one of her favorite Queens. As in the mythology, there were three queens that she loved and who did have a part in the original story. The second was Helen, hailed as the most beautiful woman in the world, who was kidnapped by Paris, which started the Trojan War. The third was Clytemnestra. Her tragic tale was her killing of her husband Agamemnon, and then being killed by her son to avenge his father. It was these three queens that Hera did her utmost to help.

I loved how the story is told by Hera. She has to be subtle in her help so Zues doesn’t find out, as her interference would anger him, all the while Zues does what he wants. She manipulates “behind the scenes” so to speak. Her sarcastic comments about the writing of the poets about the Trojan War and Odyssues’ return are priceless. Hera makes her contempt for the suitors very clear as well. A we see Penelope through Hera’s eyes, we come to know just how smart and cunning she is. She plays her role as hostess and queen, all the while plotting and scheming to hold them all at bay and protect the people of Ithaca. She pretends not to listen to her suitors, as women are nothing more than ornaments, but as Hera describes, they underestimate Penelope at every turn.

“The final woman should perhaps be weaving at the square loom she is often seen with in public-but no-this is a private place, for serious business, so instead she sits with her hands in her lap, chin turned up, a little away from the men around the table, listening with an intensity that would frighten Ajax…She is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, lady of the house, queen of Ithaca, and the source, she is assured by a great many men, of nothing of woe and strife…” Claire North, Ithaca

Penelope, as in the original story, was able to hold her suitors at bay by telling them that she must first weave a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, who, by the way, is very much alive. She weaves all day, and undoes it every night, thus dragging out the process. Pirates raid Ithaca periodically, but there are no men to fight. The suitors are too busy arguing to help. Penelope has the women trained, once again bucking tradition, and shows the intelligence, strength, perseverance all the women possess. They will not be curtailed by societal norms.

Hera tells much of the backstory of Penelope and Odysseus, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen and Menelaus. This is the version we would not see. The cruelty of both Agamemnon and Menelaus towards Helen and Clytemnestra, were actions towards their wives that would be acceptable in that society. The murder of Agamemnon is portrayed differently in the poems, but I felt this would seem more accurate, given who he was and his abuse of his wife. Hera tells of the infighting of the gods, the suffering of the mortals, and how it seems to the reader that they are like pieces on a chess board. While getting these backstories, we never loose sight of the story of Penelope.

The pacing and prose were excellent. I loved the story since I know the original so well, this perspective was refreshing. Ms. North takes those elements from the original story, and because she is looking at from a different perspective, weaves a seamless version of this Penelope that we only have glimpses of. Hera’s point of view, as goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth was a perfect and unique choice. She knows all the politics of the gods and how they affect mortal lives. She loves her queens and subtly tries to help and protect them, while having to make sure Zues does not find out. Hera is sarcastic, funny, and offers her very scathing opinions of Penelope’s suitors. The pacing was great. I never felt the story was not moving forward or stagnating. It was perfectly written with all the elements: the story of the gods, the backstory of the queens, and most important, Penelope. I highly recommend Ithaca. You don’t have to read the Iliad or the Odyssey to know the story. Hera, or I should say, Ms. North, does an excellent job filling the reader in.

Overall Thoughts

Ithaca, by Claire North, is epic telling of the Odyssey from the perspective Queen Penelope as she waits twenty years for the return of her husband, Odysseus, to come home from the Trojan War. I loved the feminine aspect of this story, breaking down every societal norm believed about women at the time. While the Iliad and the Odyssey were poems, they were written by Homer in the 8th century BC, and the status of women was nothing more than chattel. Ms. North crashes through these barriers as Penelope and the women of Ithaca take matters into their own hands to defend their home. Penelope is wise, cunning, and smart, all the while pretending to be the grieving wife. She holds off suitors seeking to marry her and take the throne of Ithaca. How she does it is the same as portrayed in the original poems, weaving all day and taking it apart at night, telling the suitors she cannot marry until the shroud she weaves is finished. Ms. North chooses to tell the story in the first-person narrative of Hera, the wife of Zues. It was a brilliant decision. Hera, goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth is was perfect. She loves Penelope and works subtly to help her when she can. Hera gives us the backstory of gods, manipulation, the story of the kings of Greece, and all the other information we need on the suitors. She does it with humor and her very strong opinions. I enjoyed this book as I am very familiar with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Reading it from the perspective of Penelope and the other women in the original poems is truly unique and beautifully told. I am looking forward to the next book and I highly recommend Ithaca.

Summary (from NetGalley)
This is the story of Penelope of Ithaca, famed wife of Odysseus, as it has never been told before. Beyond Ithaca’s shores, the whims of gods dictate the wars of men. But on the isle, it is the choices of the abandoned women—and their goddesses—that will change the course of the world. 
Seventeen years ago, King Odysseus sailed to war with Troy, taking with him every man of fighting age from the island of Ithaca. None of them has returned, and the women of Ithaca have been left behind to run the kingdom. 
Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. While he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that her husband is dead, and suitors are beginning to knock at her door.  
No one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’ empty throne—not yet. But everyone waits for the balance of power to tip, and Penelope knows that any choice she makes could plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war. Only through cunning, wit, and her trusted circle of maids, can she maintain the tenuous peace needed for the kingdom to survive. 
On Ithaca, everyone watches, including the gods. And there is no corner of the land where intrigue does not reign. 

My sincere thanks to Orbit Books for a copy of the book to review and NetGalley for providing me with an eBook ARC for Ithaca
To find out more about Claire North please visit her website at
Purchase Ithaca on Amazon

Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated author whose first book was written when she was just fourteen years old. She went on to write several other novels in various genres, before publishing her first major work as Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, in 2014. It was a critically acclaimed success, receiving rave reviews and an Audie nomination, and was included in the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year list. Her most recent novel, Touch, was also in the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year, in 2015.

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