‘Atalanta’ by Jennifer Saint: The story of the forgotten Argonaut

In our Atalanta book review, we outline how Jennifer Saint uses interpersonal relationships to make a Greek epic more approachable.

I have spent the beginning years of my twenties largely consuming books for the little girl I grew up as, whose reading abilities outstripped her options. I was excited to read Atalanta as soon as it was announced, and even more excited when I was able to review it. I knew this would’ve been the kind of book I really wanted as a kid, with a strong heroine on an epic journey, challenging the men who treat her poorly, and most importantly, besting them. I know my younger self would’ve run around outside with a bow and arrow, pretending to hit targets and sail on the Argo. As our bookshelves get more crowded with these Greek retellings, I get more hopeful about the world of books kids are stepping into.

Atalanta is Jennifer Saint’s third book, and this time she tells us the story of the only woman on the Argo. But before Atalanta was an argonaut sailing for the golden fleece, she was a young woman under Artemis’ protection. We see her raised among nymphs under the watchful eye of the wildest goddess, and so it is no surprise when we witness her grow into a great heroine. We accompany Atalanta on the Argo, to meetings with Heracles and Orpheus, across islands and oceans and straits, and through many competitions of strength and speed among her fellow heroes. The book shows us the entirety of Atalanta’s life, and while the bulk of it is her time as an Argonaut, we see she is much more than that.

It’s obvious that an author needs some specific perspective in order to successfully write a book in this genre, and Jennifer Saint seems to zero in on the quiet, human moments amidst all the action. Chances are, if you’re picking up a copy of Atalanta, you’re familiar with the adventures of the Argonauts. We have not come to this story for a rehashing of Jason plowing Aeetes’ field; we’ve come for a new perspective, and in my Atalanta book review, I want to examine how Saint provides that in what we would usually see as the low points of the story. The action sequences and the quests themselves move startlingly fast, taking up mere paragraphs. We linger on the inaction between them, the setting up and tearing down of camp, the hunting in the woods, the conversations between Atalanta and the many people she meets along the way. This is a rather large swing as far as writing styles go—an adaptation of a Greek epic implies action, but the book manages to pull it off. There is as much tension in Atalanta’s choices in her relationships as there are in her battles.

atalanta book review

I think the unique pace of the novel harkens back to the appeal of this sub-genre as a whole; these are the myths we know told differently. Women have looked into these age-old stories and seen something that the bards didn’t, and they’re offering their perspective now, centuries later. As our culture moves farther from purism and gatekeeping, we can consider the merit of learning the great Greek myths from modern women, who have the keen eye to spot the story that should’ve been told. Atalanta has always been a great hero, like Clytemnestra or Circe or Hippolyta, but they’ve been relegated to the background until recently.

Another character that looms large in my own imagination, but is usually not given the status she deserves in a classics lecture, is Medea. Of course, you can’t discuss Jason without Medea, and this book lays out exactly why that is. Medea is somewhat of a foil for the very physical and straight forward Atalanta, but that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t respect her. Medea is young, but already world-weary and self-possessed, and finally, we get her story in context. So many of us are familiar with Medea’s wicked deeds, and flinch away from her legacy, but Atalanta finally allows her to be seen in her true form, a survivor. Daughter of a wicked king, utterly trapped in the abuse, she clings to the hope that the argonauts bring when they arrive on Colchis to take the fleece. Medea is not willing to let this opportunity for freedom pass her by, and she molds Jason into the hero and husband she needs to achieve this. Medea’s actions may not be sweet or respectful, but they reflect her situation, and it’s powerful to finally be privy to her motivations.

I wanted to take a moment in this Atalanta book review to explore what this book does for the current cultural conversation around trans athletes. Atalanta is a cis woman who is constantly defying expectations about her body and its capabilities. She is the most accomplished hunter, the fastest, a formidable fighter, and men are constantly surprised by this. When we are inundated in society with lies about gender essentialism, it is sometimes difficult to remember that it is simply untrue. Biological sex is endlessly complex, and the unilateral statement that AFAB people are weaker than AMAB people cannot be soundly made. I loved watching a woman like Atalanta display such physicality because it is important to combat gender essentialism and create a smoother path to equality in sports for trans athletes. Watching a cis woman best cis men at every turn challenges these outdated beliefs.

‘Atalanta’ hit bookstore shelves May 9, 2023

Buy Atalanta by Jennifer Saint through Macmillan, BookShop.org, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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