Doubleday | 2017 (15 June) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
When King Iasus of Pagasae ordered his newborn daughter to be exposed on the frozen rocks of Mount Pelion, he set in motion a series of events that not only threatened his own kingdom’s future but also the peace and order of the gods themselves. The baby, with only a medallion around her neck to hint at her true heritage, was rescued and adopted by a woodcutting man and his wife but, as the girl grew into a woman, it became increasingly clear to the family that loved her that Atalanta was destined for a great future. On learning the truth, having committed an extraordinary feat of daring and skill, Atalanta is determined to prove herself to the father who discarded her like rubbish on the mountainside.
Atalanta learns that King Iasus has sent his nephew Jason on a formidable yet glorious mission – to sail with a band of Greek heroes aboard the Argo to claim the legendary Golden Fleece from the distant land of Colchis. His reward will be the kingdom of Pagasae. But Atalanta is determined to win that throne for herself. And to do that this formidable young woman must earn a place among the Argonauts and steal the Golden Fleece for herself. But this is no mortals’ game. The gods watch the affairs of men from the blissful gardens and pools of Olympus and they are more than ready to take sides. Each of them has a favourite; the rest must suffer the tempests of divine disfavour. But even the gods can’t have everything their own way. For the winner, the stakes will be very high indeed.
In For the Winner, Emily Hausner once again returns to the pre-classical world of Greek myth and legend. This is the age of heroes and mighty quests, when gods walked the earth and meddled in the affairs of men, and centaurs and other strange creatures did their bidding. In her last novel For the Most Beautiful, Emily Hausner portrayed the Trojan War, focusing on the women, both divine and mortal, who steered its course. In For the Winner it’s the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest to steal the Golden Fleece. But once again, Hausner examines a well-known legend from an unusual and female perspective, this time focusing on Atalanta, one of the lesser known Argonauts but an extraordinary woman of her time.
Much of the novel follows Atalanta on her adventures with the Argonauts and it’s an astonishing tale of larger-than-life heroes and their mighty ambition. The ultimate affront is a woman daring to pretend to be a man to sail with them. Their outrage can be nothing but calamitous. But Atalanta is a woman set on her course, in pursuit of justice and vengeance, and she will endure whatever obstacles the gods put in her path. And there are plenty of those. Throughout the novel are chapters which take us to the playworld of the gods and what a capricious bunch of gods they are. But in this novel, their scheming is held in check by the influence of Iris, one of the ‘lesser’ yet undoubtedly powerful gods, who also has her eye on Atalanta.
I wasn’t sure about how well the gods worked as a device in the previous novel For the Most Beautiful. But I have no such concerns with For the Winner, possibly due to the extremely successful and calming influence of Iris, who serves as an effective bridge between the mortal and the divine. They still have comic value but it’s not overpowering and I thoroughly enjoyed these diversions – I particularly liked Zeus. King of the gods he might be, but somebody needs to tell the other gods.
For the Winner isn’t a novel about Jason and the Golden Fleece, it’s about Atalanta. I enjoyed the glimpses we’re given of Jason’s cruel character and I was gripped by the scenes aboard the Argo (and did wish that we saw something of Medea), but our attention stays with Atalanta and she deserves it. She’s a woman of her age, fighting against it, but she’s also easy for us to empathise with. But it’s wonderful how Emily Hauser brings alive this Bronze Age world of ancient Greece, with its walled towns and rural settlements, its sea passages and its fundamental beliefs in the gods and fates. Women, obviously, don’t fare too well, barely treated better than slaves, and so Atalanta’s story is all the more extraordinary and powerful. We’re behind her on every stage of her perilous journey.
Emily Hausner is a classics scholar and clearly knows her subject, bringing the time and its people and places to life, but she also writes beautifully. This is immersive writing, marvellously descriptive and evocative, and the voyage itself is thrilling from the outset. The dialogue and narrative feels natural yet reminiscent in some ways of the great classics, particularly Homer, but it isn’t laboured. It feels right. I enjoyed For the Most Beautiful but For the Winner is a great step forward – an elegant, exciting and in some ways moving story of Atalanta’s adventure to steal back her fate from man and gods.
For the Most Beautiful