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CLYTEMNESTRA, Costanza Casati's debut novel, is a feminist retelling of the story of Clytemnestra, a legendary queen of Greek mythology and the sister of the famed Helen of Troy. Always a side or supporting character in accounts of more famous mythological figures, this time the villain queen tells her own story from center stage.

The daughter of Tyndareus and Leda, the king and queen of Sparta, Clytemnestra has always been destined for greatness. Trained as a Spartan warrior from birth, she is not the most beautiful of her siblings --- that title belongs to Helen alone --- but she is the most charming and beloved, especially in Sparta. When we meet Clytemnestra, she is but a teenager, delighting in training for battle and spending time with her meeker sister. In Greek mythology, she often bursts on the scene through her marriage with the tyrant Agamemnon. But in this retelling, we encounter a younger Clytemnestra just as King Tantalus of Maeonia comes to visit. The two fall in love and marry.

"Casati announces herself as a thrilling new voice in the genre, every bit worthy of standing next to greats like Madeline Miller and Jennifer Saint."

Clytemnestra is pregnant with her husband’s child before he announces that he must return to his kingdom to inform his citizens of his marriage and forthcoming heir. But he encourages his queen to stay home so that the residents of Sparta can meet their offspring before she departs for Maeonia for what likely will be the rest of her life. Clytemnestra misses Tantalus dearly, but her attention is soon called to the next round of visitors to Sparta: Agamemnon and Menelaus, who were recently exiled from their home of Mycenae. These brothers are openly violent and cruel, often harming their servants or casting threatening glares at Clytemnestra and Helen.

Helen’s life has been weighed down by the rumor that she is not Tyndareus’ true child, and Menelaus preys upon this weakness to encourage Helen to wed him. But the brothers do not want just Helen; Agamemnon knows that married or pregnant, Clytemnestra is the fiercest woman of Sparta, and he is determined to own that power. Before the book’s second act, Clytemnestra’s beloved husband is murdered, along with their baby, and she is forced to marry Agamemnon, thus setting into motion her role as a villain queen and the future Trojan War.

CLYTEMNESTRA then jumps more than a decade ahead, finding our titular character in Mycenae wedded to Agamemnon. Unlike her first marriage, this one is loveless, but she has been taught by her mother that this is common and “it is hard to find a man who is really strong. Strong enough not to desire to be stronger than you.” However, she finds ways to exert power and survive, even as her resentment and need for revenge continue to fester and grow within her.

Now presenting the Clytemnestra most readers will recognize, Casati takes great care to humanize and unpack her helplessness and resulting rage, to lay bare the ways that she has been betrayed, manipulated and undermined. And in Clytemnestra’s capable hands, revenge is a dish best served ice cold. When war comes to their family, Agamemnon once again takes advantage of his queen, this time sacrificing their own daughter to the gods in hopes of gaining ground in the battle for Helen of Troy.

As Clytemnestra mourns her second loss of a child and rages against her husband, she also begins to strategize and cement her ruling in Mycenae, becoming the queen of legend, the kind that her grandmother once prophesied: “Ambition, courage, distrust. You will be [queen] soon enough and that is what you will need if you want to outlive the men who’ll wish to be rid of you.” While Clytemnestra is shaped by her traumas, she is not victim to them. It is her inner strength, rather than her rage, that truly guides her.

Feminist retellings, particularly of Greek mythology, are not a new phenomenon in literature. But in her choosing of Clytemnestra, her careful research into the queen and numerous other characters, and her razor-sharp, wonderfully cadenced prose, Casati announces herself as a thrilling new voice in the genre, every bit worthy of standing next to greats like Madeline Miller and Jennifer Saint. She achieves what every retelling should: employing well-known beats and measures and writing them in a fresh voice with stunning nuance and vivid, fiercely feminist imagery to make them feel new but eternal, as classic as their origins.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 6, 2023

by Costanza Casati

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • ISBN-10: 1728279372
  • ISBN-13: 9781728279374