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Book: “Atalanta” by Jennifer Saint
Publishing Info: May 2023, Flatiron Books
Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!
Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat
Book Description: Princess, Warrior, Lover, Hero
When Princess Atalanta is born, a daughter rather than the son her parents hoped for, she is left on a mountainside to die. But even then, she is a survivor. Raised by a mother bear under the protective eye of the goddess Artemis, Atalanta grows up wild and free, with just one condition: if she marries, Artemis warns, it will be her undoing.
Although she loves her beautiful forest home, Atalanta yearns for adventure. When Artemis offers her the chance to fight in her name alongside the Argonauts, the fiercest band of warriors the world has ever seen, Atalanta seizes it. The Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece is filled with impossible challenges, but Atalanta proves herself equal to the men she fights alongside. As she is swept into a passionate affair, in defiance of Artemis’s warning, she begins to question the goddess’s true intentions. Can Atalanta carve out her own legendary place in a world of men, while staying true to her heart?
Full of joy, passion, and adventure, Atalanta is the story of a woman who refuses to be contained. Jennifer Saint places Atalanta in the pantheon of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology, where she belongs.
Review: While nothing has quite reached the high that was “Circe” when we read that for bookclub last year, I’m still feeling fairly positive about Greek retellings as a whole. There are just so many great female characters in that pantheon and collection of stories that are only mentioned briefly but who hint at fascinating, untold histories. Such is the case with Atalanta, a character who is only briefly mentioned as a member of the Argonauts and then has some brief adventures as a runner until, predictably, she’s tricked by a man into marriage and they both suffer tragedy at the hands of the gods. So…there’s a lot of small mentions, but not much of an overall arch. All of this to say, I was incredibly excited to see that Jennifer Saint was giving this powerful woman a story all of her own!
Left for dead on the side of a mountain as an infant, Atalanta’s life seemed destined to be short and cruel. But instead, the goddess Artemis takes her under her wing, raising her to become a powerful huntress. As a grown woman, Atalanta begins to long to test her skills in a human world that she has only ever seen from a distance. So when Artemis tasks her to join the heroic quest of Jason and his Argonauts, Atalanta is eager to join the adventure and bring glory to her goddess. As she journeys, she begins to understand that what makes a hero may be very different than what she had previously suspected. And that, as women, she and the other women she meets bring their own form of power in a world that often sees them shunted to the side.
So, I won’t skate around the main point: I loved this book! As I said, it’s been fairly hit and miss for me with these retellings from the perspectives of lesser known female characters from various pantheons. And when we read “The Witch’s Heart” for bookclub, it began to highlight one of the things I was starting to struggle with. While “Circe” was a powerful look at womanhood and motherhood, after reading a few other similar titles, I began to feel like they were all telling similar versions of these women’s experiences. And, yes, these are important insights into the challenges, joys, and sorrows of the life of these women. But, as with any good thing, too much of one version of any character can begin to feel reductive. So, into this landscape, Atalanta arrived like a breath of fresh air.
In Atalanta, we find a powerful woman who never questions her own value, even when faced with the doubters of the world. She remains confident in her abilities and is determined to gain glory for her goddess, not to just prove men wrong, but because it is simple what she desires to do. Atalanta joins a crew of men and sets out to live a life just as unrestrained as those around her, unwilling to be limited by false chains that others would place upon her based on her sex. I loved the fact that the author forego the tendency to force her powerful female character to suffer an onslaught of self-doubt in the face of ugliness from the world.
Not only was she an excellent character in all of these ways, but as the story progresses and the adventures take us through the lives of other Greek female characters, Atalanta provides a running commentary on the way these women’s lives are shaped by the men around them. And while poignant, the book never feels preachy about any of these points.
I also really appreciated the way this book dealt with the romance and motherhood aspects of Atalanta’s story. Here, the book really makes a name for itself as different than the other books in this genre that I have read. There are two romances in this story, and I very much appreciated the different ways that Atalanta experienced these relationships. They both do important work to further highlight Atalanta’s story as a human’s story, not just a woman’s. She, too, like the men around her, can enjoy a romance without wishing to tie her life to another. But then her experiences of pregnancy do focus in on the way that the biological reality of women is very different. However, again, I enjoyed this different experience of motherhood. Here we have a woman who never wished to have a child, who is not swept away by a magical sense of attachment when her baby arrives. Instead, she feels responsibility and duty to do best by this child, but recognizes that the best life for both her son and herself may be one apart from one another. I really liked this different approach, and it felt true to the character we had been reading about up to this point.
The last part of the book is devoted to the famous race that Atalanta takes part in. Here, too, I liked the subtle changes the author made to not reduce Atalanta’s agency in her own story. I also really liked the way the end of the story was dealt with, providing a unique, and, again, true-feeling conclusion to this heroic woman’s tale. I will say, however, that the last quarter of the story did feel a bit rushed. Overall, if I had one qualm about the book, it would be the pacing. In some ways, the story feels very much like it is ticking away at the bullet point references to Atalanta that we have from the original stories. But, again, I enjoyed this character and the highlighted experiences of the various women included too much to have many complaints about pacing and a rushed ending. This is a must-read for any fans of fantasy stories like “Circe” that feature strong, female characters.
Rating 9: Powerful and sure-handed, Jennifer Saint brings to life a new hero, a woman who knows her value and will not let any man shunt her to the side.
“Atalanta” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Feminist Retellings Of Greek Myths and Historical Fiction – Greece.