A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

A Thousand Ships cover

A Thousand Ships is the Trojan War retold from the perspectives of a plethora of women, Trojan, Greek, and gods. It starts with Troy burning, and stretches out in a non-linear fashion to tell the story of the war, how it came to be, and what happened afterwards. Famous stories—Penelope and Odysseus, the Trojan women, Helen, Aphrodite and the golden apple—are told from different perspectives, and other characters given a fuller narrative (as Haynes outlines in the afterword). By the end, the story of the war has been told, but not as it usually is.

Female retellings of material from the Iliad and Odyssey have been prevalent recently, perhaps most notably Madeleine Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Where A Thousand Ships differs is in its style and scope: this is a book that gives a huge range of female perspectives, and uses carefully chosen moving perspectives to weave the story together. For example, Cassandra is used to tell others’ stories, but her own death is from Clytemnestra’s view, and Penelope tells Odyssey’s story in the form of futile letters to her husband. Calliope, muse of epic poetry, is used to provide a sharp take on male-focused epic and the tendency to ignore the fights of the women. This multi-faceted approach is what has felt lacking from other retellings, and it also makes the book a surprisingly good way of get an overview not only of the content of the Iliad, but a host of other classical texts and stories that rely on the Trojan War in some way.

Another crucial aspect is its depiction of war itself, and the horrors of it. This is a book full of death, as the story requires, and there is sometimes a surprising amount of nuance, such as where Trojan characters accept that if the tables were turned, the Greeks would have been slaughtered and forced into slavery just the same. Calliope’s sections bring some overall commentary on war and also about writing one, even if it is mythical.

As A Thousand Ships unfolds, it becomes a compulsive read, waiting to see which characters get their story told and how the Trojan War will be woven together through these perspectives. Naturally, there’s plenty that has to be left out, glossed over, or changed, but this isn’t an academic exercise, but rather a complex novel that should sit along other modern retellings of these classical stories as a reminder there’s new ways to bring out these narratives.