Metamorphica by Zachary Mason

I received an ARC of this book from the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux in exchange for a fair and honest review.

After having read Mason’s previous book — a collection of reimaginings of the Odyssey — last year, I was very excited for his “follow-up” reimaginings of further Greco-Roman myths. Metamorphica didn’t disappoint.

Metamorphica is based on the myths found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses — though just a fraction of them, as the original has 15 books worth of content. Still, in the 53 short stories we get to meet characters both very well-known (Athena and Persephone, Icarus and Orpheus) and ones I had to quickly google (sorry, Tiresias). Each myth is introduced briefly at the start of the chapter and then given a little twist during the retelling. Maybe Hercules isn’t quite as heroic as you remember, or maybe Helen of Troy’s thoughts are considered instead of her husband’s or lover’s. In this way, Ovid’s “Transformations” are transformed further.

Myth reinterpretations are always pretty hard: go too far and it’s a completely different character with a famous name slapped on, go too little and you may as well stick to the original. For me, Mason straddles the line well. He has a knack for taking the most important trait of a character and preserving it while changing the rest to fit his new story.

Naturally, in a collection of short stories, some of these work a bit better than others. There was no particular one I disliked, but some did stick with me more than others. I think it’s in part a matter of story length. The longer ones have a bit more room to breathe and hence just work better than, say, Arachne’s half a page. And in part it’s a matter of myth familiarity. While you don’t really have to know the original myth to enjoy the reinterpretation, it’s certainly funner when you do — like a sly little wink between you and the author. I bookmarked all the stories I’d especially want to reread later, and counting them up, it’s a little over half.

To no one’s particular surprise, most of the ones I liked best were the reinterpretations of women-centric myths. I’ll leave Helen’s and Persephone’s for you to discover for yourself but here’s a little taste of Clytemnestra’s. Clytemnestra’s husband sacrificed their daughter to a goddess so she’d send strong favourable winds when his ships were becalmed and he needed to hurry to Troy.

Afterwards, I was going to hang myself. I had the idea she’d be lonely, down in the shadow-lands, afraid of the caverns, the dark, the other ghosts, that even then she needed me, but as I tied the rope to the rafter I remember how he’d washed his hands in a fountain after killing her with the look of a man relieved to have put a disagreeable task behind him, and my mind ignited like dry kindling; suddenly I was empty of love, and had no purpose in life but to be his undoing. I’ve been waiting a long time for my husband to come home.

Yep.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Metamorphica. I do think that the previous book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, was a tad stronger: there’s just something very powerful in presenting myriad vastly different stories and interpretations with the same small core set of characters, and unfortunately Metamorphica, which switches focus with every story, can’t match that from the onset. But both are very good, and especially if your faves aren’t in the Odyssey, I really recommend you try this one. I’m already crossing my fingers that there’s going to be a book three!

I especially recommend this book for:

  • Fans of Greek myths!
  • People interested in myth reinterpretations more generally
  • People who like strong, dreamy prose
  • Fans of literary fantasy
  • Fans of OG fantasy, I’m talking 8th century BC style

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