In Lauren J. A. Bear’s take on Greek mythology, the Olympian deities are abusive, banal and acrimonious while mortals, usually women, suffer the consequences for their deadly chicanery. Medusa’s Sisters, Bear’s retelling of the tale of the immortal Stheno and Euryale and their very famous mortal sister, focuses mainly on their youth, spent exploring the contradictions of humankind, and their lives after Medusa’s decapitation.
Three beautiful children of the monstrous gods of the deep sea, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa are fascinated by the mortal world from an early age. During their travels in the human realm, they encounter famed figures such as Semele, the mother of Dionysus, who in Bear’s hands is a Roman candle of a princess, plunging incandescently towards tragedy. Bear also introduces original characters, such as Erastus, a talented singer but poor songwriter, and Ligeia, his wife and creative partner. An instinctive musical genius, Ligeia is trapped by the sexism of her time, which prohibits talented women from publicly upstaging their male peers. In Medusa’s Sisters, men both mortal and divine, laden with fetishes and presumptions, run the table while everyone else saves who and what they can. And through it all, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa try, and fail, to hold true to one another.
Many works, from Dan Simmons’ Ilium to Madeline Miller’s Circe to William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, have depicted the gods of Homer and Hesiod as pompous assholes. But Bear throws a few wrenches in the gears. Her novel is not as bleak as those aforementioned works; rather, it is a celebration of love in all its complex, contradictory guises. The affection among sisters bound by blood, choice or circumstance often takes center stage, as does maternal compassion, whether embodied by the gracious Leto, mother of twin gods Apollo and Artemis, or the monstrous sea-dragon Echidna. Erastus and Ligeia’s mutual adoration makes his helpless inability to win her the celebration he fervently believes she deserves beautiful instead of just heartbreaking. Despite the brutal tragedy at its heart, Medusa’s Sisters is a tapestry woven of fondnesses, relentlessly seeking the beauty and laughter along the road to the inevitable statuary.
Medusa’s Sisters, like the eponymous immortals themselves, is many things. It is a retelling of an old, old story, but one that conjures an unexpected ending from its familiar source materials. It is gorgeously crafted, with an uncommon lyricism and attention to detail. But most of all, it is simply an exceptional story of the many faces love can wear.