Uncomfortable Topics


I mean… it’s Greek mythology people.

Set the Scene

Publishing Year: 2019

I am unsure if I just am making my way through the books I added to my list in 2019, or if 2019 was a great year for female writers.

Either way, this was the last year of pre-COVID normal, so thinking of this time may bring you nostalgia (or anxiety).

While the date of publication on a re-write of a couple-thousand-year-old story? The biggest relevance is this is the first time that I’ve heard anything from the perspective of a lot of these famous characters.

About the Author

This is not Natalie Haynes first retelling of a classic tale. In fact, she has a delightful podcast on it. If you’re a history buff, you will probably like her Instagram as much as much as her books.

The Story

This story is wonderfully thought out, and some of the characters who didn’t have much life or thought given to them before are all here in very in-your-face ways. Come along as women attempt to survive the brutalities that war brings.

If you are squeamish, this book isn’t for you. You get to hear the pain from mothers as their babies are dropped off city walls, as they burn to death and meet their end as a sacrifice at their fathers hand.

Men have these tales of sacrifice and glory but what about those being sacrificed? I know few of their stories survive, so its great to hear another take.

Note that if you are not familiar with the Illad and the Odyssey, you might want to brush up before reading.

My Take Aways

This book satisfied an itch for me that I wasn’t fully aware that I had. The first time I read the Epic Tale I was still in elementary school. This story finally addressed the harsh choices made by people who “belonged” to others. While many reviews say the book is doesn’t develop depth for many of their characters, but when tragedy is abound, you rarely have time to process before moving to the next problem.

Influencing Perception

Everyone makes choices all the time to influence how we are perceived, but women and those who are visual minorities police themselves in a much more thorough way to both protect ourselves and achieve outcomes with the status we have been allocated. Penelope playing the grief stricken widow to avoid marriage while sounding like she wants to kill Odysseus herself if it didn’t mean she would need to be married off again, Calliope annoyed with homer for not telling the full story but still singing on as a sweet muse.

One of the most interesting looks was into Briseis. The power and control while being argued over by men, knowing you can do noting but try to survive, the humanity to chose to comfort another and the bonds of womanhood that try to protect each other.

Another was of Helen herself. And her internal debate on whether she could live with the actions of her consequences. Choices made by a human who was treated as property. How do people read this telling of the Trojan war and see similarities in casualties from freeing slaves in the States and the Revolutionary war? When will we learn our lessons?

Class Politics and Juxtaposition

Some story juxtapositions in this novel mirror issues in the world just as they are today. Pointing out the people in power and their reasons for their actions, while showcasing just how ridiculous people with power and sway will go to get what they think they deserve.

A thousand Ships Natalie Heynes Quotes " he loses his wife so he stirs up an army to bring her back to him. Costing countless lives and creating countless widows, orphans, and slaves. Oenone loser her husband and raises their son. Which of those acts is the more heroic?"

Helen was held captive, albeit with many luxuries and did what she could in her new home to help even while maintaining her freedom.

Still the men willing to risk their lives for her capture, to uphold ‘honor’ by committing atrocities was a common occurrence.

a thousand ships by natalie heynes quote " Because the spartan king had lost his queen, a hundred queens lost their kings"

Living with the Violence of Men

A tale as old as time that women are still looking to solve today. That women get ridiculed and death threats and persecution and job loss for trying to rectify. In an interview with NPR, Heynes talks about how A Thousand Ships was inspired by a documentary of the women surviving the Ugandan Genocide, and being told to live in the same village post war with men who killed her husband and kids and raped her and many others. (See Also – Power Shift)

When the book came out, a journalist asked me, you know, why should classics be relevant? Why should this book be relevant? I was like, mate, there’s nothing I would like more for the story of women displaced by war to not be relevant anymore. But, you know, unfortunately, it remains extremely relevant to us today.

– Natalie Heynes
a thoushand ships by natalie heynes quote "survivors, victims, perpetrators: these roles are not always separate. people can be wounded and wounding at the same time, or at different times in the same life."

Until women have the ability and confidence to persecute men for their crimes society will continue to put the freedom of men above a woman’s health and safety. Until men hold each other accountable for these actions, women will always be fighting or creating our own networks to heal without solving the root problems.

Not that women don’t commit violence in this story, or in real life. But when analyzing this from the feminist lens, most of those acts are committed in self defense or preservation.

The other way this topic comes up a lot is not just through the book but comparing this telling to more traditional tellings of female characters by men.

This poem of the Amazonian Queen, as pointed out by the Guardian, is vastly different than the characters we meet in Heynes story.

What to Read Next

Not feminist lit, but follows a non-linear multiple narrator story format, has high steaks and dramatic familial and political relations – Your Heart a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa is worth a read.

If you’re looking for something a little more modern, I recommend Roxanne Gay or Gloria Steinem For the sarcasm and variety of topics to learn about. If you’re looking for something a little more light, I don’t have much to recommend in this genre… yet.

natalie henes a thousand ships quote
"He is learning that in any war, victors may be destroyed as completely as the vanquished. They still have their lives, but they have given up everything else in order to keep them. They sacrifice what they do not realize they have until they have lost it. And so the man who can win the war can rarely survive the peace."
natalie heynes quote from a thousand ships 
"men's deaths are epic. Women's deths are tragic: is that it? HE has misunderstood the very nature of conflict. Epic is countless tragedies woven together. Heroes don't become heroes without carnage.