Monday, September 11, 2023

Katharine Beutner's Alcestis puts a feminist spin on the tale of a princess from ancient Greek myth

In Greek mythology, Alcestis is known for her great love for her husband, choosing to take his place when death came for him. Her story isn’t one I knew before, though my ignorance didn’t prevent my  enjoyment of Katharine Beutner’s feminist retelling. 

mixes elements of Mycenaean culture with the fantastic in its sensitive portrait of a woman too rarely given credit for her heroism. 

Alcestis, the youngest daughter of the King of Iolcus, comes into the world as her mother dies. Neglected by her father, she forms a tight bond with her next oldest sister, Hippothoe, a sickly girl who dies young. Alcestis never gets over the loss. She hopes for better things from her marriage to Admetus, King of Pherae, especially since he invokes the help of Apollo in his desire to win her hand, but the reality of their union proves disappointing.

Reimaginings of old stories continue to gain reader interest, and this one certainly leaves room for imaginative interpretation. How did Alcestis spend those three days in the underworld, anyway? In Beutner’s version, it’s not devotion to her husband that prompts her choice but a yearning to reunite with her beloved sister and the desire to avoid shame.

The novel’s first half reads like a traditional retelling, though one enhanced with well-placed details on ancient Greek customs and rituals and the occasional presence of capricious gods. When Alcestis arrives in the underworld, however, her journey becomes truly otherworldly. In this seasonless place of shifting landscapes, thousands of shades are condemned to perpetual wandering, their dull, gray faces displaying their fading memories of their former lives.

Alcestis is the granddaughter of Poseidon – only two generations separate her from divinity – though only in the underworld does she discover the truth behind myths she’d grown up believing, and the feminine power she never knew she possessed. She also falls in love with the goddess Persephone, raising questions about whether a divine creature is truly capable of such a human emotion. The tale is rendered with strength and delicacy, a rare combination of qualities also found in Alcestis herself.

Alcestis, Beutner's debut novel, was originally published in 2010, and I read it from my own copy.  With myth-based historicals proving so popular, the time is right for a re-release; it also has a brand new cover. The author's second novel, Killingly, about a real-life unsolved crime from late 19th-century New England, was published in June, and I hope to read it in the coming months.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating read. Feminist retellings of ancient myths are very prominent now. I've read both Nikki Marmery's LILLITH and Laura Shepperson's THE HEROINES (UK version; titled PHAEDRA in US) and found both enthralling, beautifully written tales that demonstrate what imagination can unearth that the dominant story has hidden. Thanks for this review!

  2. I've been hearing a lot about both of those books - thanks for the recommendations!

  3. Greek mythology, particularly stories like Alcestis', has always held a special place in my heart, so I'm excited to see how Beutner weaves a feminist perspective into the narrative. The mix of Mycenaean culture and the fantastic sounds captivating, and I appreciate the attention to detail in portraying a woman whose heroism has often been overshadowed. Thank you for your thoughtful and enthusiastic review. I'm genuinely looking forward to picking up Alcestis and exploring this feminist reimagining of a classic myth. Your insights have added a new layer of excitement to my reading list, and I can't wait to delve into this world of gods, heroes, and heroines.