Classical Mythology Inspired Fiction: Where to Start Reading

Last Updated on April 8, 2023

Over the last few years, stories inspired by mythology have become an integral part of fiction, spawning off a sub-genre of retellings. Personally, I’m here for all of them and have been devouring any and all I’ve been able to get my hands on – but if you haven’t, where to start? I’ve sat down with the team and put together a list of great books to start reading stories based on Classical mythology! This is the first part of a multi-part series on books inspired by myths and legends, with Arthurian novels to follow next.

 

Circe

Cover of CirceMadeleine Miller is the original queen of this wave of retellings. Her The Song of Achilles and Circe are classics for a reason – and especially Circe is a brilliant story giving a woman agency rather than being a footnote in someone else’s story. Circe had always been fascinating to me through her small role in the Odyssey and reading this when it came out some years ago is what drew me to retellings. A must-read if you’re getting into retellings!

 

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from or the mortals she has come to love.

Read Circe by Madeline Miller

Stone Blind

Cover of Stone BlindMedusa might be my favourite female figure from Greek myth. And she has absolutely no time for the mediocre men who make her life a mess – and Natalie Haynes’ Stone Blind nails that sentiment. Told partially by the Gorgoneion – Medusa’s slayed head – Stone Blind has the advantage of hindsight and a snarky narrator who takes no shit. It is compelling and thoroughly feminist. A true story of the gods’ whims and how they favour undeserving mortals and the impact this has on the women around them.

 

Medusa is the only mortal in a family of gods. Growing up with her sisters, she quickly realises that she is the only one who gets older, experiences change, feels weakness. Her mortal lifespan gives her an urgency that her family will never know.

When, in Athene’s temple, desire pushes Poseidon to commit the unforgivable, Medusa’s mortal life is changed forever. Athene, furious at the sacrilege committed, directs her revenge on Medusa. The punishment is that she is turned into a Gorgon: sharp teeth, snakes for hair and a gaze that will turn any living creature to stone. Appalled by her own reflection, Medusa can no longer look upon anything she loves without destroying it. She condemns herself to a life of solitude in the shadows to limit her murderous range.

That is, until Perseus embarks upon a fateful quest to fetch the head of a Gorgon….

Read Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

Clytemnestra

Constanza Casati’s Clytemnestra is a fascinating portrayal of one of the most complex human women in Classical mythology. A fiercely loving mother, ultimately killed by her own children in a series of revenge acts. This take on her story is written in brilliant prose, taking the reader through Clytemnestra’s life from childhood to the more famous parts and creates a multi-layered anti-hero to root for. The pacing is just right and tension is kept up so well in this, I flew through it and need more. One that stands out from the market – see our full review here.

 

You are born to a king, but marry a tyrant. You stand helplessly as he sacrifices your child to placate the gods. You watch him wage war on a foreign shore and comfort yourself with violent thoughts of your own.

You play the part, fooling enemies who deny you justice. Slowly, you plot.

You are Clytemnestra.

But when the husband who owns you returns in triumph, what then?

Acceptance or vengeance – infamy follows both. So you bide your time and wait, until you might force the gods’ hands and take revenge. Until you rise. For you understood something that the others don’t. If power isn’t given to you, you have to take it for yourself.

Read Clytemnestra by Constanza Casati

Ariadne / Elektra / Atalanta

Cover of AriadneJennifer Saint has become a cult favourite among lovers of mythological fiction over the last few years. And rightfully so. Her novels are strong, well-paced and compelling. Ariadne is a new take on what happens to the titular character after she is abandoned by Theseus – because who needs weak men like him? – and was a true pleasure to read in a single sitting. Elektra takes the reader on a journey to discover the lives of three women – Elektra, her mother Clytemnestra, and Cassandra, the Trojan princess brought back by her father as his spoils of war. I am looking forward to reading Atalanta when it comes out this spring – I’m sure it will be just as compelling and full of morally complex female characters!

 

Ariadne, Princess of Crete and daughter of the fearsome King Minos, grows up hearing stories of gods and heroes. But beneath the golden palace something else stirs, the hoofbeats and bellows echoing from the Labyrinth below. Every year its captive, the Minotaur—Ariadne’s brother—demands blood.

When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne sees in him her chance to escape. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that drawing the attention of the mercurial gods may cost her everything.

In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to risk everything for love ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?

Read Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

The Wolf Den trilogy

Cover of The Wolf DenElodie Harper’s The Wolf Den series isn’t quite a mythological retelling in the traditional sense. But it is set in Pompeii around the legendary Lupinarium – the titular Wolf Den and its brothel. And that makes it fair game to join this list to me – because this series is great and deserves all the love. Amara, the main character is a prostitute, a slave at the Lupinarium, brought there from Greece. She works hard to find a way out of slavery for herself. It is fascinating to see Pompeii come to life – a place I have always been fascinated by – and to meet so many fleshed out characters, both new and familiar from the pages of history. Read the full review of book one here – and look out for book three later this year!

 

Sold by her mother. Enslaved in Pompeii’s brothel. Determined to survive. Her name is Amara. Welcome to the Wolf Den….

Amara was once a beloved daughter, until her father’s death plunged her family into penury. Now she is a slave in Pompeii’s infamous brothel, owned by a man she despises. Sharp, clever and resourceful, Amara is forced to hide her talents. For as a she-wolf, her only value lies in the desire she can stir in others.

But Amara’s spirit is far from broken.

By day, she walks the streets with her fellow she-wolves, finding comfort in the laughter and dreams they share. For the streets of Pompeii are alive with opportunity. Out here, even the lowest slave can secure a reversal in fortune. Amara has learnt that everything in this city has its price. But how much is her freedom going to cost her?

Read The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

The Silence of the Girls / The Women of Troy

Cover of Silence of the GirlsOn the more literary end of the list, Pat Barker’s novels, The Silence of the Girls and the follow-up, The Women of Troy, are brilliant contenders to round off this list. While most stories and retellings focus on Helen – who I find to be a hugely over-rated character, especially as her importance is due to her looks alone making her a plaything of the gods – this instead is centred on Briseis. Trojan princess captured by the Greeks, Barker explores her life and the moral conundrums she faces as a slave in the enemy camp right outside her beleaguered home. These novels are slower than others on this list, but more introspective and pack no less of a punch.

 

The great city of Troy is under siege as Greek heroes Achilles and Agamemnon wage bloody war over a stolen woman. In the Greek camp, another woman is watching and waiting: Briseis. She was a queen of this land until Achilles sacked her city and murdered her husband and sons. Now she is Achilles’ concubine: a prize of battle.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women backstage in this war – the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead – all of them voiceless in history. But, though no one knows it yet, they are just 10 weeks away from the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy, an end to this long and bitter conflict. Briseis will see it all – and she will bear witness.

Read The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Bonus: Lore Olympus

Cover of Lore Olympus Volume 1I decided to add Rachel Smythe’s Lore Olympus on as a bonus rather than a part of the list itself as it is on the fluffier end of interpretations of Classical mythology. A webtoon comic, it is available online here as well as in a printed edition published by Del Rey. A semi-modern take on the legend of Hades and Persephone, this is a story of love, toxic relationships and the gods we all love to hate. I adore the very limited colour palette, which makes this visually unique. Delightfully gossipy and a favourite of the team!

 

Persephone, young goddess of spring, is new to Olympus. Her mother, Demeter, has raised her in the mortal realm, but after Persephone promises to train as a sacred virgin, she’s allowed to live in the fast-moving, glamorous world of the gods.

When her roommate, Artemis, takes her to a party, her entire life changes: she ends up meeting Hades and feels an immediate spark with the charming yet misunderstood ruler of the Underworld.

Now Persephone must navigate the confusing politics and relationships that rule Olympus, while also figuring out her own place – and her own power.

Read Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.