Jennifer Saint’s Atalanta Gives A Lesser Known Greek Heroine Her Due

Books Reviews Jennifer Saint
Jennifer Saint’s Atalanta Gives A Lesser Known Greek Heroine Her Due

Although feminist mythological retellings are all the rage in the world of publishing right now, many of them tend to touch on similar themes and stories, often even using the same characters. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—and I will happily read as many versions of Circe and Clytemnestra as authors want to put in front of me—but it does leave a space for more stories that aren’t, say, about the Trojan War. This is part of the reason why author Jennifer Saint’s latest novel, Atalanta, feels like such a breath of fresh air.

Atalanta cover

The story of the famous female warrior who journeyed with Jason and his Argonauts on their quest to find the Golden Fleece, Atalanta seems set to introduce an entirely new generation of readers to a woman who’s never really been given her due, historically speaking. Where Saint’s previous novel, Elektra, was a story about female rage—the tale of three very different women who are equally furious about the ways they’re denied the chance to have agency or voices of their own—Atlanta is a tale about legacy and memory, and the ways that women and women’s successes are often erased and marginalized, even in their own stories. 

Left to die on a mountainside as an infant by her father, a Greek king who never wanted a daughter, Atalanta is rescued by a bear and raised by the goddess Artemis, who trains her to be a confident and capable warrior and to disdain the company of men. But when word of Jason’s plan to gather the greatest heroes of Greece to join his search for the Golden Fleece, Artemis sends Atalanta as her champion with the aim of winning glory in her name. Determined to prove her worth and skill, Atlanta endures the rudeness and skepticism of her male companions, who include such notables as Heracles,  Castor, Polydeuces, and Euphemus. Though she makes a few friends—a surprisingly open-minded king’s son named Meleager and the legendary musician Orpheus—she’s frustrated by the fact that much of the trip’s supposed glory seems to arrive more tarnished than she was initially promised. 

And, despite her obvious skill, particularly with a bow, most of the Argonauts seem determined to diminish and dismiss her, from outright ignoring her to eagerly claiming credit that rightfully belongs to her. This behavior generally reflects the consistent way her very presence is erased from many of the stories of Jason’s voyage—after all, how could a woman be seen as an equal with the world’s greatest warriors, or be the sort of hero that the poets will sing of forever? Wasn’t she always destined to be treated as an afterthought, no matter what she did? 

The varied adventures of the Argonauts make for compelling reading, as Atalanta and her companions face everything from monsters and six-armed giants to magical prophecies and an island of women who murdered all the men that once lived there. (And she kicks just as much butt as any of the more famous heroes.) Saint deftly threads multiple familiar tales together into a freshly cohesive whole, with many nods to other various famous and tangential myths: Heracles’s twelve labors, Peleus’s famous son Achilles, the ease with which Jason disregards vows and promises, and more. 

Saint’s depiction of the sorceress Medea is especially intriguing—truly, I can’t wait until she writes this woman’s story in its own right—particularly in the ways her story contrasts and mirrors Atalanta’s own. She is a woman who, in many ways, should be the least powerful person in the story, but who is ultimately the biggest reason that Jason’s mission succeeds.  A figure who, at least in Atalanta’s eyes, has stripped their journey of much of the shared glory they were promised. What great tales, after all, can be told of the people who stood around and watched while a woman enchanted a monstrous snake? 

But where Medea is traditionally remembered only for her worst deeds—murder, cannibalism, and more—Atalanta is rarely remembered at all. In fact, we see her erasure begin in this story, as various Argonauts begin to recount their adventures, conveniently editing her out of their tales of their adventures or never mentioning that she was involved in the first place. Which is better: To be remembered badly or erased completely? (It’s deeply unfortunate that this question seems to still be so relevant for women trying to succeed in the world today.) 

Saint’s writing style is deceptively simple, yet her story is laser-focused on giving Atalanta the sort of depth and interiority that women in Greek mythology rarely receive. As she wrestles with what sort of world she belongs in—the world of men where her abilities are constantly denigrated, or Artemis’s chaste, ascetic forest, where she’s not allowed to feel any of the passion she found with Meleager—she must decide what she wants her story to be, a decision that Saint allows to feel like a powerful choice, rather than a preordained outcome. Even Atalanta’s tragic end is given a strange and subtly unexpected beauty.

Atlanta is available now

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.`

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