In our Lies We Sing to the Sea book review, we want to illuminate how Sara Underwood uses the universality of teenage problems to let people know they aren’t alone, making Greek mythology more approachable in the process.
The recent influx of the feminist Greek myth retelling genre has birthed both incredible literary ventures like Circe or Daughters of Sparta, and some books that are decidedly less extraordinary. Regardless, these books consistently give voices to women that both history and myth have refused to previously, and for that, I will continue to pick these novels up.
I was intrigued by Lies We Sing to the Sea, not only because of its clever premise, but because it’s a YA novel. When I read YA as an adult, I often think about what my younger self would make of it. Would I see myself in the characters? Would it have exposed me to new ideas sooner than I was? Would it become my new hyperfixation? While Lies We Sing to the Sea is missing some of the elaborate prose and devastating violence of some other mythological retellings, it is the perfect introduction to both the world of The Odyssey and the women whose voices have been lost to history for young adults.
The story follows Leto, a young girl from Ithaca; Mathias, the crown prince of Ithaca; and Melantho, a former royal maid of Ithaca under Posideon’s curse. The origin of the story is the murder of Penelope’s twelve maids in The Odyssey, when Odysseus decides the young girls who had been assaulted were traitors, and orders his son, Telemauchaus, to kill them. Poisedon was unhappy with this, as he was with all of Odysseus’ actions, and so Ithaca has been under his curse ever since, and unless twelve young women that he chooses are hanged as a sacrifice, Ithaca will be pulled into the ocean. Leto, Matthias, and Melantho all must work together to break this curse, and save thousands of future girls from hanging.
Striking a balance between YA writing and ancient myth couldn’t have felt natural at first, but Lies We Sing to the Sea does manage to find something of a compromise by focusing on the immortality of teenagehood. The three main characters, whose points of view we switch between, are all approaching eighteen. While they carry an extraordinary mythological burden, they also have the same interpersonal and identity struggles that we can expect to find in any teenager. One of the most compelling aspects of this was the isolation Melantho felt because of her queerness.
Now, being a girl who Posideon has claimed and given the ability to break his centuries-long curse would be enough to make you feel different from your peers, but Melantho is also a lesbian. There is a sort of love triangle between the three POV characters, but more than a traditional “which one will be chosen” plot, we can view the young prince as a stand-in for heteronormativity. Melantho is confused as to why Leto is so quick to forgive and even become friends with the prince, who is part of the family that started this entire curse. There is a certain amount of isolation in existing outside of the male gaze. For lesbians, it is not just that you don’t intend to ever build a life with a man, it is that you don’t understand the instinct of others to do so. The circumstances in which these feelings arise are not always so extreme, but from not knowing what to say when your friend’s subpar boyfriend comes back into the picture to not understanding why your almost-girlfriend would pick the whiny prince of the island where you both grew up impoverished instead of you, the feelings come from the same place. Personally, I have taken to just quoting Fiona Apple lyrics to my friends whenever the men in their lives are disappointing, and I find that it works well.
I found this story charming and insightful, and know I would have loved to have this on my bookshelf as a teenager, and so I hope my Lies We Sing to the Sea book review helps it find its audience. This serves as a fantastic introduction to the world of Homer’s stories, especially because the ending doesn’t pull its punches like a true Greek tragedy. I think every young adult could pick up this book and find a part of themselves in one of the characters, and subsequently realize that people like them have always existed.
‘Lies We Sing to the Sea’ published on March 7, 2023
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