Through the ages, storytellers have deployed myths to explain the unexplainable, be it the creation of the world or the promise of an afterlife. But despite their timeless appeal, these stories often carry a fair share of misogyny, prejudice, and messed-up politics that silence or distort the voices of women and other marginalized figures. Thus, it’s not really a surprise that in recent times, more and more female authors are “writing back” to the classical myths, putting their own subversive spin on the older tales, or completely reinventing them for this day and age.
If you enjoy mythological retellings, then check out the following novels, all written by women that reimagine famous and lesser-known characters from Greek myths, Norse legends, and even the Japanese pantheon, in a new and feminist light.
Madeline Miller rose to prominence with The Song of Achilles, a lyrical reimagining of the events of the Trojan War, with a particular focus on the homoerotic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. In 2018, she published Circe, detailing the life and times of one of the most infamous witches in Greek mythology.
Written in lush and evocative prose, Circe is an emotional and enriching ride about a lone woman’s struggle to live life on her own terms in an intensely cruel and patriarchal world—a story that will no doubt resonate with female readers.
Much has been said and written about the wily Odysseus who engineered the Fall of Troy, and survived countless adventures on the sea, till at last, he returned to his home kingdom of Ithaca.
But there aren’t that many stories about his equally (if not more) wily wife Penelope, who spent decades singlehandedly managing the affairs at court, raising a son, and fending off rogue suitors while awaiting the return of her husband. In The Penelopiad, Atwood tells the story of the much-overlooked Greek heroine, with acerbic wit and eloquence.
The Goddess Chronicle
Kirino’s harrowing tale is a retelling of the Izanami and Izanaki myth from ancient Japan. The story initially focuses on the 16-year-old Namima who flees her restrictive religious role in the island by eloping with her love, only to end up betrayed and dead in the underworld with the deity Izanami.
The novel delves into the cycles of pain and betrayal that ultimately traps all women—whether you are a goddess or a commoner. A gloomy and tragic read no doubt, but also a scathing take on patriarchal power structures and the urgent need to dismantle them.
Most of us are familiar with Ariadne’s tale—how she betrayed her father and her country to help Theseus slay the minotaur and escape the labyrinth, by guiding him with a skein of red thread only for him to abandon her in the island of Naxos. It’s a sad fate that resonates with the lived experiences of several women who have been jilted in love or cheated on by a spouse.
Author Jennifer Saint makes her mesmerizing debut by retelling Ariadne’s story right from her childhood, and her search for a happily-ever-after without leaving out any of the grisly details. It also focuses on Ariadne’s relationship with the Minotaur and her younger sister, Phaedra.
The Witch's Heart
The stories of the Norse pantheon, as narrated by the Vikings mostly focus on the masculine gods, such as Odin and Thor, and sometimes the shapeshifting trickster Loki—characters that have now become household names thanks to the popularity of the Marvel films.
But the supporting characters? Not so much.
Genevieve Gorniche’s debut novel, The Witch's Heart tells the story of Angrboda, a banished witch hiding deep in the forest who falls in love with Loki and has three children with him. With an unreliable husband and no one to depend on, she risks everything to protect the person she loves and their children. Another highlight of the book is how it also focuses on Angrboda’s friendship with the huntress Skadi.
The original Pandora myth tries to find an answer for why there is evil in the world, and as usual, a woman’s curiosity is to blame. In a tale like that of Eve's from the Bible, Pandora mistakenly opens a sealed jar and scatters its evil contents upon mankind.
In Susan Stokes-Chapman’s vivid and delightful retelling, Pandora is reimagined as a young woman who aspires to be a jewelry designer, living with her uncle in the attic of her parents’ antique shop. When a mysterious Greek vase is delivered, she enlists the help of a scholar and uncovers not one but several buried secrets. Published first in the United Kingdom, Pandora will be available in the United States on January 17.
The Icarus Girl
Nigerian-born writer Helen Oyeyemi is known for her distinctive mix of whimsy and distress as well as her magical-realist writing style. The Icarus Girl, which is her first novel, is a horror tale that follows eight-year-old Jess Harrison as she struggles to fit in the community.
Featuring a neurodivergent protagonist, the novel alludes to the story of Icarus and Daedalus and richly blends it with Nigerian mythology to make for an unforgettable read. Exploring the moments that a child becomes mature, The Icarus Girl is resonate and terrifying.
This Locus Award-winning book was incidentally Ursula K. Le Guin’s last novel. It draws upon the last six books of the Aeneid, the epic Latin poem by Virgil.
Although a minor character in the original poem, Le Guin gives the princess Lavinia a voice and a rich history of her own. Caught up in a deadly war and court intrigue, Lavinia tries to take matters into her own hands and slowly retreats from the world.
In Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie transposes the fate of Antigone from Ancient Greece to the predicament of present-day British Muslims, who are caught up in the crossfire of two cultures.
The story focuses on the members of the Pasha family—their joys, upheavals, and tragedies—and like the Greek play in five acts, Home Fire is told in five sections, each from a different character’s point-of-view.
One of the gorgons in Greek myth, Medusa had snakes for hair and her gaze could turn mortals to stone, leading her to be shunned.
Jessie Burton’s YA novel places Medusa at the forefront of the narrative. Exiled by the gods to a distant island, Medusa’s lonely life takes a turn when the charming boy called Perseus arrives at the place. Gorgeously illustrated by Olivia Lomenech Gill, Medusa offers a fascinating foray into Greek lore and updates the tale with a more satisfying ending.