We all know the story of the Iliad, the ancient Greek poem detailing the story of Achilles during the time of the decade long Trojan War. Helen, the queen of Sparta and the most beautify woman in the world, was taken to Troy by Paris, sparking a conflict between the Achaeans and the Trojans that would see many heroes dead by the finale. Considered to have been written down for the first time in the 8th century BCE, commonly attributed to the legendary author known as Homer, whom the Odyssey is also attributed. In truth, the story is likely much older than his written version, and would have had any different versions in accordance with the oral tradition of storytelling. The Iliad has the remarkable distinction of being truly timeless, with it still being commonly read today and even taught in classes around the world. This ever-lasting appeal has also led to constant re-imaginings and appropriations of the story, characters, and themes. From feminist translations to complete overhauls, every storyteller has their own idea on what makes the story of Achilles great.
The latest in a long line of Trojan War retellings is this year’s Wrath Goddess Sing, by Maya Deane. The title is taken from the first line of the epic poem, and is an immediate signal of what is to come: “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles…” Often translated as rage, sometimes translated as wrath, the two words can carry different connotations, and Deane keeps that difference in mind with this book. Wrath Goddess Sing is a retelling of the Trojan War written by an author with a researcher’s mind, who put in the work to portray Troy and Mycenean Greece accurately, as well as using ancient versions of the gods from mythology, prior to the standardization of the Olympians as we know them. Deane extrapolates some very imaginative portrayals of the gods and goddesses based on the burning of offerings common in ancient Greece, and is not afraid to get truly weird with how divine beings might see the world. The novel is not an easy read, requiring you to really pay attention to what is happening and understand the complex web of connections being weaved. The star of the story is, of course, Achilles, with one key difference from the usual tellings: the Achilles of Wrath Goddess Sing is a trans woman. This change is essential the story Deane has chosen to tell, and the opening chapters of the book do a wonderful job of connecting readers to Achilles in a realistic way while keeping the character familiar.
Although Wrath Goddess Sing features gods and goddesses, magic, and mystical transformations, it is also a very historically accurate novel and portrayal of ancient Greece and the historical Trojan War. For most of recorded history, we believed that the tale was fiction and that Troy a purely mythological place. Up until the discovery of Wilusa in the late 1800’s, an ancient city-state and part of the Hittite Empire in western Anatolia. With that discovery, the theory that a version of the Trojan War actually happened, or that there was some sort of conflict between the coastal city-state and Mycenean Greece, suddenly become much more plausible. In this novel, Deane never actually refers to Troy as Troy, using the Hittite name Wilusa. She extends this trend with other cities in Anatolia, keeping the Hittite names instead of using the ones translated from ancient Greek. Going farther than that, she also uses the Hittite names of important characters from Troy, such as Paris being called Alaksandu, King Priam being called King Piyama, and Aineias being called Anyasha. There is even a moment in the novel where the Greek characters acknowledge that they use different names than the Hittites, similar to how we use Germany in English but the country is actually called Deutschland. Because of this, and Deane’s take on the Olympians drawing from the most ancient of myths, the book can be a little confusing for casual fans of Greek mythology. For example, there is no mention of Hades because Hades did not enter the mythology until after the historical time period of the Trojan War. Deane also features several queer characters, including other transgender characters, reminding readers that queer people have always existed throughout history, despite the centuries of erasure by conservative historians.
When we first meet Achilles at the start of the novel, she is residing on the island of Skyros, which is shown to be a very trans friendly part of Greece in the novel. Known as kallai, or “the beautiful ones”, trans people are able to not only live in peace and comfort but also both socially and medically transition through the use of various herbs and medicines. At the start of the novel, Achilles has been living among the other kallai under the name Pyrrha, hiding from people potentially looking to bring her home and force her to detransition. There are the embers of the Achilles we know from mythology in these early chapters, but it is easy to tell that something is missing, a direct result of her not being allowed to be herself back home amongst the Myrmidons and from the glimpses of abuse we see in her dreams and nightmares. But all of that changes when Odysseus and Diomedes finally find her. They tell Achilles that she is actually the daughter of Athena, and is being called by the gods to fight in the upcoming Trojan War. Achilles initially refuses to leave Skyros, rightfully unwilling to return to a world which mistakes her for a man. However, she embraces her full might and wrath when Athena herself appears, offering to give Achilles the body of a cisgender woman in exchange for fighting. Following her incredible transformation, Achilles revels in her strength and confidence, quickly winning the respect of her people and showing everyone exactly why they should fear the rage of Achilles.
Among the various characters from the Iliad who make appearances are the usual suspects like Agamemnon, Helen, the aforementioned Odysseus and Diomedes, Menelaus, and nearly everyone else. But, of course, no retelling of the Trojan War is complete without Patroclus. Deane’s portrayal of Patroclus is actually remarkably different from most of his portrayals in that any romantic tension between him and Achilles is removed. Here, they are cousins and Patroclus is married to Meryapi, a scholar, princess, and the granddaughter of the Egyptian pharaoh. Patroclus, however, is the perfect ally, always supporting Achilles and accepting her correct gender when she first came out. While he is the perfect second-in-command to help Achilles mobilize the Myrmidons, he is also not afraid to temper her temper when needed. He also stands unwaveringly by Meryapi as she dives into researching her passions. Meryapi will likely be the fan favorite character of this story, both because of her important to the plot and because of her personality leaps off the page. She is an incredibly fun character who near-instantly charms Achilles, leading the two to consider themselves sisters. For most of the book, they are inseparable, and her absence is felt during the scenes without her.
On the opposite side of that warmth and acceptance resides the gods along with the person who could be considered the main antagonist of the story: Helen. Here, Deane takes the most radical departures from the classic tale. The gods are portrayed as truly monstrous beings, literally eating the offering burnt in their name, along with any Greek who dies in their name. All sacrifices are equal to them, and they view humans as little more than entertaining livestock. Achilles almost never refers to them by name, instead calling Zeus the Thundered or Poseidon the Earthshaker. The family dynamic is also very different, reflecting very early portrayals of the gods in ancient mythology. For example, instead of sons, Hephaistos and Ares are brothers of Zeus. Hera and Zeus are not married, Poseidon is unrelated to Zeus, and Hades does not even exist. When it comes to Helen, the changes are even larger. Instead of Eris, goddess of discord, instigating the Trojan War by manipulating Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite to compete for the Apple of Discord, Helen is the apple. She manipulated the start of the Trojan War by magically charming Alaksandu to steal her away from Menelaus. We learn of this deception very early in the story during an ill-fated rescue mission, during which Helen develops an obsession and rivalry with Achilles. As the war begins, the gods choose sides in the conflict. Some trying to use Achilles to stop Helen, and others trying to gain control of Helen for their own ends, ending with both tragedy and an incredibly imaginative climax.
The Iliad, and many ancient Greek myths, is a tragedy. Characters die, the war drags on, and well laid plans fail. While there are certainly successes, each new success brings an added complication to the conflict. While Wrath Goddess Sing condenses the story of the Iliad to under a year, instead of year ten in a decade long war, it still follows many familiar story beats. We know how certain plots must end, even if, as a reader, we really hope Achilles find a way to avoid fate. The only criticism I really have is that we do not see very much of Helen, although we hear about her throughout. Her stalker like obsession with Achilles is a major element of the story, and it could have been fun to see them interact more. However, in this regard Achilles is sensible and Deane writes her reactions and plans realistically, so it is hard to find much fault there. Wrath Goddess Sing is truly a great retelling of the Iliad for the modern era, with welcome and interesting changes paired with historical research to make it fresh and interesting. If you love Greek mythology, or just want to read a good book featuring a kickass trans woman, you cannot go wrong with Wrath Goddess Sing.
Wrath Goddess Sing can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 18 days
Next on the List: Project Nemesis, by Jeremy Robinson