A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

March 2023

After finishing Circe a while back, I got on a real Greek mythology kick and starting looking around for other books set in that world. A Thousand Ships immediately jumped out as the perfect contender, and when I spotted the book in a shop and flipped it open to read that brilliant opening line above, I knew I had found what I was looking for.

A Thousand Ships tells the story of the Trojan war entirely through the women affected by it - everyone from Helen, whose face launched those thousand ships, to Calliope, the muse whom Homer (presumably) ropes in to tell the tale of it. It’s basically the Iliad (and the Odyssey) recounted from a perspective we never otherwise get to see.

The book is outstanding, but it’s not necessarily an easy read. Nothing good happens to any woman (mortal or otherwise) in Greek myth and legend, so not much good happens here, either. Each chapter focuses on a different woman, and almost every woman’s story is like a punch to the gut. I found the portrait of poor cursed Cassandra especially devastating, and it’s going to stay with me for a long time. Every time I started a new chapter, I slightly dreaded whatever it was likely to hold.

It’s not all bleak, though; some of the women get their vengeance, and some manage to craft a satisfying life for themselves despite the tragedies in their past. I also realized that the most graphic descriptions of violence are reserved for the few men who get their comeuppance; terrible things happen to many of the women, but these things are often just suggested or somewhat oblique. The pain and suffering of women is generally treated with understated tact here. There’s humor as well; the increasing snarky letters from Penelope to her roaming husband Odysseus are particularly delightful, and I also enjoyed the character of Calliope singing the tale that she wants to have told, which is not exactly the tale that the poet himself wants to tell.

I think this has just stoked by Greek mythology obsession even more, so I’m looking forward to reading the other books by Natalie Haynes.

Further reading…