I started 2020 not quite knowing what I wanted for and from my reading life. At the halfway point, I’m still exploring. My academic interests have remained grounded in the same concerns and topics, but I struggled to read outside of that interest in May (and June, spoiler alert). That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s something I've noticed that may be related to the urgency of the moment.
The King Must Die (Theseus #1) by Mary Renault
Back when I had a personal Twitter account, I asked Classics Twitter for recommendations of books that engage with ancient Greece in an interesting and thought-provoking way. Renault’s novels were strongly recommended, repeatedly. After reading The King Must Die, I can see why. As suggested by the parenthetical, The King Must Die, first published in 1958, tackles the Theseus myth. In the myth, the Athenian prince travels to Crete as a tribute to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, but with the help of Cretan king Minos’ daughter Ariadne, Theseus kills the Minotaur and escapes.
Rather than retelling the myth as a fantastical story, Renault uses it as the basis for a historical reconstruction, imagining how a very human story about exploitation and power and love and community could become the basis for a fantastical story. Renault’s novel is a grand thought-experiment set mostly on Bronze Age Crete. What I especially value about this novel: It does not try to make the ancient world palatable to a modern audience, nor does Renault use an ancient story as an allegory or parable to illuminate the present. Her story is firmly rooted in the ancient past—its brutality, dualities, obsession with honor, and (paradoxically) its fundamental unknowability. Renault brilliantly evokes the latter with her use of language, obfuscating meaning in ways that mirror the experience of reading ancient texts.
As when reading ancient epics, the point of reading The King Must Die is not necessarily to see ourselves reflected in the characters’ actions and choices but in their emotional landscapes and their longing for meaning, honor, and beauty. If you favor reception that transforms ancient Greece into a familiar world with modern values and concerns, Renault may not be to your taste. But if you want to feel—through both story and language—as if you’ve been transported back in time, I highly recommend Renault.
Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, translated by Philip Vellacott
In Euripides' tragedy, believed to have been written at the end of the playwright's death around 406 BC, the Greek armies have amassed at Audi’s, ready to sail for Troy in force. Except there is no wind for sailing, and Artemis demands a sacrifice: Agamemnon’s young daughter Iphigenia.
It’s never entirely clear to me what a Euripides play is about. They can seem deeply subversive. On the one hand, this play seems to call out the gods’ capricious natures, the cruel way they toy with humans, dangling the promise of glory but demanding steep sacrifices in exchange. On the other hand, the end leaves open whether the whole system is a sham excuse to explain away humans’ bad actions and choices. Did Euripides and Socrates exchange notes?
Agamemnon (Oresteia #1) by Aeschylus, translates by Sarah Ruden
In classical Athens, tragedies were performed in groups of three around a theme. Aeschylus’ Oresteia is the only trilogy to survive complete from antiquity, and Agamemnon is the first play in that trilogy that asks, what is justice?
Agamemnon picks up the titular character’s story when he returns from Troy and walks into a trap set for him by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Clytemnestra welcomes Agamemnon in a speech filled with double meanings then she and Aegisthus kill him. The play ends on a cliffhanger: The Chorus refers to Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, being in exile and possibly returning to avenge his father. Agamemnon feels very much like the first act of a larger story.
Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava Quartet #1) by Roshani Chokshi
This middle-grade fantasy is inspired by Hindu epic—specifically, the Mahabharata—and cosmology. After lighting a cursed lamp and releasing a demon, Aru discovers that she is a reincarnated Pandava and must go on a quest to prevent the end of time.
Speaking as a grown-up reading a novel for 12-year-olds, the plot felt a bit garbled and formulaic. However, the relationship between Aru and her divine sister and Aru’s personal growth arc were both beautifully done, and I would highly recommend this novel for the middle school readers in your life.
Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
This YA contemporary follows Charlie Davis from the moment she wakes up in the hospital after attempting to kill herself. Having experienced trauma from a young age, Charlie is trapped in a cycle of shame, pain, and self-harm. The novel follows her recovery process. It's not one I would have picked up had it not been assigned to me. It's a gripping, unflinching story about the importance of finding your community and developing healthy coping mechanisms.
Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
Three points of view tell a story about the Russian revolution and its aftermath: Russian aristocrat Sofia, impoverished Varinka, and American socialite Eliza.
This period of history has drawn me since I was in high school, and I appreciate the research that went into reconstructing this world. Varinka’s narrative lent needed complexity and depth, though at times she seemed to serve more as foil than character.
A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
A middle grade novel set in East Berlin at the time of the Berlin Wall’s construction, it follows a young girl’s attempt to reunite her family after her brother and dissident father are trapped in the west. Nielsen’s lovely writing carries this slow-moving historical suspense story, whose focus is on the surveillance state’s corrosive effects. Nielsen keeps it tense to the end; it reads like a young person’s The Spy Who Came in the From the Cold.
What books have you been reading these days?