Book Review: The Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood

book review the shadow of perseus claire heywood

Title: The Shadow of Perseus

Author: Claire Heywood

Publisher: Dutton

Publication date: February 21, 2023

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mythology Retelling

One Sentence Summary: This is the story of the three key women in Perseus’s life: his mother Danae, the Gorgon Medusa, and his wife Andromeda.

the shadow of perseus claire heywood


The Shadow of Perseus follows the life of Perseus from the time before he was even born to when he fulfills the Pythia’s prophecy. Told by his mother Danae, the Gorgon Medusa, and his kidnapped bride Andromeda, this is Perseus’s story and how he came to not be the hero the myths paint him to be. His mother Danae’s story was interesting and I enjoyed her backstory, but her coddling kept Perseus from growing into a proper man who could understand the world. And that led him to the brutal beheading of Medusa and the kidnapping of Andromeda. And yet these two women weren’t innocent as their own ways of treating Perseus didn’t do anything from staving off his anger. I hate that I feel like a part of me blames these women, but Perseus doesn’t get a say of his own. Still, I enjoyed that this was very readable and found ordinary explanations for the interventions of the gods.

Extended Thoughts

The Shadow of Perseus is the sort of story I ought to love. It takes Greek mythology and gives it an historical spin, stripping out the gods’ intervention and finding wholly Earthly explanations. While I do love reading about the gods, I also love alternate explanations for what the ancient civilizations deemed as acts of the gods. And I did enjoy this; very much so. But I also find myself torn about this one, especially when it came to the depiction of Perseus. Oh, I understand this is the story of Danae, Medusa, and Andromeda, but they made Perseus’s depiction seem like a serious side effect of who they were and how they treated him.

Since The Shadow of Perseus is divided between the three women, though, for reasonable reasons Medusa’s is quite truncated compared to the other two women, I figure the best way to discuss this book is by breaking it up likewise. After all, this is the story of Perseus from the eyes of the three key women in his life. I did find this oddly fascinating as this is about those women, but their treatment of Perseus from the time he was but a babe in his mother had a profound impact on him. It was interesting to find a message, perhaps a side effect of the story being told or perhaps purposeful, that women have a great deal of impact on men, which is quite powerful but also potentially destructive.

Danae is Perseus’s mother. A princess, she’s characterized, especially early on, as appropriately spoiled. She’s also a bit naive and self-centered. It was lovely to get her backstory and see her with her father’s brother, as well as get the rivalry between them as they jointly rule the kingdom. I found her story to be fascinating, and then, when the Pythia’s prophecy is given, it was quite sad, though I liked how there was a very ordinary explanation for how Perseus came to be. There are quite a lot of ordinary, plausible explanations given regarding Danae’s life past this point, and I found myself not even missing the intervention of the gods. It worked really well and I found myself fascinated by it all. The best was that I didn’t even feel like I needed to be knowledgeable in ancient history and geography to understand any part of this book.

The part of Danae’s story that didn’t quite work for me was when the story skips forward to when Perseus is basically a young teen. He’s still attached to his mother’s hip, much to the consternation of the family they’ve taken shelter with since a pregnant Danae washed up on shore. Danae has raised him with the Pythia’s words in mind and has sought a non-violent existence for her son. It was quite sad to watch her have to deal with the loss of the family she’s come to regard as her own after living the life of a princess and then have to see just how much she failed her son. But some part of me couldn’t help but put some of the blame for how he turned out on her. She sheltered him as a mother might, but she ignored all the other ways she could have helped shape him. Though the men and boys he grew up with didn’t help matters at all, either. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Perseus at this point, and could see how he was likely going to spiral as he encountered Medusa and then Andromeda.

Medusa was utterly fascinating. The Gorgons are women with snakes for hair, and I was dying to see how this would play out in the book. It fit well, though I could still do without snakes. I loved the background for the Gorgon community, and I loved that it existed in this world, because it really went into the things women had to deal with both then and still now. Medusa herself felt a bit in conflict. She’s found this community where men can’t hurt her and knows first hand just how badly they can cut, but still finds herself fascinated and even attracted to Perseus. On one hand, I could understand it. But, on the other, she just felt too nice to him, which would, of course, give him certain ideas. If I’m tracing Perseus from his childhood, we have a mother who coddled and never really let him grow to be a man, so now he’s spoiled and has no idea how to appropriately express himself. Now we have a potential love interest who has basically laughed in his face, so I could understand his rage. It’s entirely not fair to Medusa, and I can absolutely be sympathetic to her, and Danae, because of this world they live in, but it also feels like, since Perseus was basically raised to be an innocent child all his life and has likely been at the butt end of all the jokes aboard the ship he’s been forced onto, well, he’s going to have some anger issues. Absolutely nothing Medusa could have known about, but I do recall he mentioned his time with the other men to her. An error on both ends led to a terrible conclusion, though there’s something quite wrong with Perseus as he moves forward.

Andromeda is a lovely woman living in what would be Africa, I believe. She’s beautiful and smart, so of course she’s going to find herself engaged to an equally lovely man. Unfortunately, her mother constantly boasts about her daughter, drawing the anger of the local gods and bringing a devastating storm. Andromeda, being as lovely and brave as she is, volunteers to take the punishment, so travels with her family and betrothed to the sea where she voluntarily chains herself to be exposed to the elements. And this is where we see Perseus again. After slaying the monster Medusa, he’s quite something else. At times, I thought him delusional, and, at others, just a coward making up stories so he looks good to the men he sails with. He’s an angry young man at this point. He seems to expect everyone and everything to fall in line for him, especially since he carries a monster’s head. And, as the story goes, he “rescues” Andromeda, marries her, and carries her off. But that’s far from the end of Andromeda’s story. She’s so brave and smart, I adored everything about her. And yet, as they reconnect with Danae and Perseus moves off with them in tow to complete the prophecy, I felt Andromeda’s honeyed words to him only made his head mushroom so he became a monster. I did love seeing Andromeda and the more timid Danae. They have a lovely partnership after a period of wariness, but I do feel Andromeda was the strongest character in the book.

We see Perseus from the eyes of the three women, though I felt like I was hand held through his story and who he was was just so very strongly suggested so it was impossible for me to formulate any other conclusion about his characterization. Women have a certain power in this book. How they treated Perseus helped turn him into who he was. Since we don’t get his perspective, it appears as though he’s little more than a puppet, pulled this way and that based on how the three women treat him. I didn’t see a lot of agency in him. He was just angry and spoiled and felt like the world owed him. And that’s where I feel torn about this book. As much as I loved reading about the three women, part of me couldn’t help but blame them for what they contributed to turn Perseus into a monster. Fortunately, they do find a way to redeem themselves in the end, but so much of this felt avoidable to me, and I hate that I have a hard time not placing any blame on their shoulders.

But I did like The Shadow of Perseus. I loved that there were ordinary explanations for everything that happened, not a little of it helped by Perseus’s imagination. I also loved that I didn’t need any kind of in-depth knowledge to be able to follow along. It was very readable and flowed nicely. I did wish for more meat on Medusa’s story, but, really, what else could be said? I loved Andromeda and enjoyed her and Danae together. I do wish Perseus had felt like he had a little more agency, but I suppose that would have changed the story. Overall, this was a fun read, though not without some things I wasn’t a fan of.

How many cups of tea will you need?

3 cups of tea

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.

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