Last Updated on June 4, 2023
Medusa is more immortalized than many of the women of Greek myths. She’s a cultural phenomenon depicted in poetry, art, and famously featured in one of the most significant moments in film animation history. Most often she’s familiar as a traumatic story of rape made monstrous by society. It’s a horror story that still survives in modern-day courts. The biting snakes on her head never quite manage to erase her humanity–for the deeper truths go skin deep for an audience that asks people to be vulnerable. In Lauren J. A. Bear’s mythological and monstrous Medusa’s Sisters, this legendary woman and her tragedy unfold through the perspective of her immortal sisters.
Medusa’s Sisters starts with Stheno, Medusa’s eldest sister, as she introduces a tale about monstrous women, family, and the creation of the world. Envision god-touched mothers, the origins of the gorgons, and the golden age of the Titan gods. Those little details left and abandoned as juicy footnotes are deep dives in Medusa’s Sisters. Echidna, the mother of monsters like Hydra, Cerberus, and the Sphinx. Typhon, her tender husband, slithers on viper tails and has eyes of fire. Their family can easily be heartfelt and ruthless the next. It isn’t until the age of the Olympians that their story really hits off.
Stheno is the more reserved sister. Euryale, the middle sister, looks at the Olympians akin to modern-day gossip about celebrity icons. Medusa, the youngest, endeavors to be like the humans. The gods around them form relationships with the sisters, whom all want fresh experiences–to find their place in the world together. Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, becomes an object of desire and a target for Euryale’s ambitious aspirations to be as revered as the Olympians. Capturing the eye of a god is tricky, and Euryale is determined to seek out those more experienced in love than her.
From city to city, the sisters learn the sensitivity of humans–and how easily a god’s seduction can turn volatile. The women are really the focus of Medusa’s Sisters, and they are not pinned down by society’s standards. Princesses they meet on the way, such as Semele, have no worries about likeability. Her arrogance and loud, drunk-filled nights are refreshing for refusing to be weighed down by complex men and dull but perfect women. Similarly, the sisters also seek out what they want in life. Sexual curiosities are not just for the mortals here. Examinations of the self, the body, and identity become a major theme as the sisters navigate a world dangerous for monstrous women. It’s their risk to do normal things any human would have the right to do that seems most relatable by modern-day events, such as society pointing fingers at the sexual assault victim. Medusa’s Sisters is not meant for the reader who wants a friend in the characters, as it’s about those who have lived with mythologically epic wrongs done to them.
In Medusa’s Sisters, the trauma survivors go through is depicted with intentional detail. It’s horribly uncomfortable, as much of the novel is meant to be about the stories of survivors. Much of the novel features risky choices, but not all of them follow through. Bear is good at showing the story, but there are some obvious mismanaged parts. Multiple scenes with dialogue guilt a survivor into carrying a baby to term because, as explained, the baby is innocent of its conception. This is a decision in the story that I had difficulty wrapping my head around, as it’s said by someone normally empathetic and sensitive. It is not the dialogue itself that is the issue, but how this anti-abortion rhetoric is performed based on characterization already laid out. Something being said isn’t explicitly wrong, as it’s entirely up to who is saying it and what is shown throughout the entire novel. It’s an out-of-character choice that puzzled me. To carry a child by sexual assault is a difficult one forced upon many real people who already have a lifetime worth of trauma ahead of them. It felt oddly out of place.
Medusa’s Sisters takes after the feminist mythology retellings, yelling that memory is shaped by who tells it. Ancient, deep, and boiling with divine prose. With complex and utterly fascinating characters, it is disappointing that Medusa’s Sisters left me sour toward the end.