In her third book, Jennifer Saint has once again focussed on a female character from Greek mythology to explore those well worn tales from a new angle. In Ariadne, she followed the woman who helped Theseus escape from the Minatour and in Elektra she took on the Trojan Wars and their aftermath from three female points of view. The centrepiece of Atalanta is the story of Jason and the Argonauts. But the story is told from the perspective of the only female crew member of the Argo (who does not always make it into the story at all) – Atalanta.
Atalanta was left as a baby by her parents on a hillside to die (presumably because she was not a boy). She was raised by bears and later by the goddess of the hunt – Artemis. It is as Artemis’s champion, faster than any man and accomplished with the bow, that Atalanta goes to join the crew of the Argo and search for the golden fleece. Following their success, and despite her contribution, Atalanta is written out of the narrative but she is finally acknowledged by her father who then wants to marry her off. The final part of the novel are two famous stories about Atalanta – the Cyladonian boar hunt and its tragic consequences and the competition to find her a husband that also involves Aphrodite’s three golden apples.
The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece is ripe for a broader exploration of Greek mythology. The crew of the Argo included Heracles, Orpheus and Theseus, so that it almost feels like an Avengers-style assemblage. And they encounter other famous characters from Greek mythology including Medea. As with Ariadne, Saint tells some tales that many readers may not be as familiar with as, say the fall of Troy. Putting Atalanta in the middle of this allows Saint to not only tell all of their stories but to critique the crew and their attitudes.
But overall Atalanta suffers from the same issues as Saint’s previous two books. That is, despite the change in perspective, Atalanta is still a fairly straight retelling of well-worn stories. And while this retelling does skewer some of the heroes of that mythology, it does not go much further. Saint does not take the opportunity (as other recent retellers of Greek mythology have), to find a deeper resonance in these stories aside from the unsurprising one that despite some fairly powerful goddesses, mythological Greece was a fairly sexist place when seen even from the position of a woman with significant powers.