“Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Phillips (2007)

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“One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.”

It’s not been long since I last delved into Greek mythology, but I couldn’t resist another visit so soon, but this time in a very different world. I actually first read this book in 2008. I was at university, and for my screenwriting class had just begun working on a pitch for a sitcom involving the Greek gods living undercover in modern London. A week later, I found this novel in Waterstones – a story of Greek gods living undercover in modern London. I ensured I finished my work before reading this one so as to not accidentally just copy it even more, but naturally found that it was done much better than mine was.

It’s been centuries since the Greek gods were respected and revered, and they now find themselves squashed together in a small north London house which has seen better days. Apollo (god of the sun) has been caught turning a mortal into a tree like he always used to, so Artemis (goddess of the hunt) and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) make him swear to do more harm to a mortal for ten years – a blink of an eye in god’s terms. Aphrodite, however, decides to give him further punishment with the aid of her son, Eros (god of love). While recording the pilot for his TV psychic show, Apollo is struck by one of Eros’ arrows of love and falls in love with a demure, innocent mortal.

Things go from bad to worse when the mortal, Alice, begins working as a cleaner at the gods’ house, and Apollo is determined that she is the true love of his life. Alice, however, doesn’t reciprocate, as she’s too caught up on her would-be boyfriend Neil, a polite engineer who’s too scared to make a move. When Alice rejects Apollo’s advances, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead our heroes down into the Underworld in an effort to prevent the end of the world.

Phillips does an incredible job of blending the gods into the modern world. It’s established they’ve been living in London since the 1600s – arriving sometime between the drop in house prices from the plague and the increase again after the 1666 fire – and each of them has been given a role that suits them well. Dionysus, for example, here runs a nightclub and is a DJ. Apollo is a TV psychic, Aphrodite is a sex-line worker, and Artemis is a professional dog walker. How the mighty have fallen. Phillips also has done her research and makes use of the gods lesser-seen aspects. Hermes is, of course the messenger god and the one who guides people to the afterlife, but she gets good mileage out of the fact he’s also the god of coincidence and money. Artemis is a sexless prude, but simply because she’s the goddess of chastity.

As I’m sure I’ve said before, the reason I love the Greek gods is because they’re all so like us. They’re manipulative, angry, selfish, bitter and so very human for a race of non-humans. Seeing them struggle with modernity is particularly good fun, but Phillips adds in aspects I would never have thought of. Eros, for example, has become a Christian, and the idea of a god worshipping another god is especially funny. He seems to be using it to work through his guilt, but also laments that he never got a chance to meet Jesus at the time. The others are less keen on Christianity, as it’s Jesus that’s the main reason no one believes in them anymore. The moral characters, Alice and Neil, are also great creations, and both oddly remind me of people I know. They’re hugely reserved and are clearly both in love with one another but too fearful to make a move and admit this. They are, in essence, the polar opposites of the gods.

Despite the generally fluffy and light attitude of the novel, there are also some very dark moments to be had, putting it on par with some of the original myths. The gods have a very different set of moral codes to humanity. They’ve always been free and easy with incest (in the second chapter, we see Apollo having sex with Aphrodite and the text acknowledges they are aunt and nephew), but there’s also a scene where Apollo tells Alice he wants to rape her, and doesn’t seem to understand why that would be a problem. Apollo is hugely self-absorbed. I’d say that he thinks the sun revolves around him, but it pretty much does, as that’s his deistic domain.

Will I ever return to writing this sort of thing? Yes, probably. My set up is vastly different, with a focus on different characters in the pantheon. Plus, there are so many re-tellings of the Greek myths that it’s not like they can’t all exist together. Still, this is one of the funniest and smartest around, so I highly recommend it if you’re into this sort of thing.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Here, The World Entire” by Anwen Kya Hayward (2016)

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“I hear his heartbeat first.”

If you’ve been lingering around this blog long enough, you’ll know I have a particular fondness for Greek mythology. I’m no expert, but I like to keep my hand in, enjoying the stories of the heroes and gods who live their lives like a historical soap opera with added magic. Anwen Kya Hayward, is someone who knows what she’s talking about. Academically instructed up to the eyeballs in the mythological studies, Anwen and I met through social media several years ago, and I have always enjoyed her passion for her subject. I’m a lazy git, so I can’t claim now that as soon as she was published, I snapped the book up, but nonetheless, here we are. Only six months late.

The tiny novella is based around the myth of Medusa, confined to her cave after being punished by Athena for something that wasn’t her fault. Once beautiful, Medusa’s golden hair has been replaced with a nest of snakes, and anyone she looks at turns to stone. Perseus intrudes upon her quiet cave, telling her that he needs her help, and was sent by Athena to ask for it. If only she would come out and meet him…

The main narrative is interspersed with events from Medusa’s history, primarily the events that caused her to be transformed into this monster, and an incident where she accidentally wiped out a whole village with her powers. Often seen as a villain in modern interpretations of Greek mythology, it is really something to see her here portrayed with humanity, sealing herself off from the world to protect everyone else as much as herself. She knows she is dangerous and doesn’t actively want to hurt anyone else, even shouting through the cave entrance that very fact to Perseus, although acknowledging that he will die if he comes in.

As mentioned, it’s a short book but I consumed it in an hour or so, supine on a sun lounger on one of the hottest days in living memory. Hayward is economical in her language, and not a word is wasted, building up an incredibly rich and beautiful world set entirely in a cave, where neither character can look at the other. Medusa, naturally, rarely describes anything she can see, so much is made of what she can hear, using aural clues to work out what Perseus is doing outside her cave. For something written, it’s incredibly unusual and very well done.

It’s a gorgeous little read, with a real sense of tragedy about it, as we explore the inner workings of a monster’s brain. It seems to tie into my recent readings of Frankenstein and Wonder, which also deal with not judging people based on their appearance or first impressions. Medusa is sympathetic, but if you know how the old myth ends, you’ll know why that’s a difficult thing to have to deal with here. A sublime piece of work, and I look forward to more.

“Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes” by Cory O’Brien (2013)

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zeus“So everybody knows Zeus is the king of the gods right?”

Some people look at the myths and legends of old and go, “I can’t believe anyone used to believe that!” But be wary, because two thousand years from now the people of the future could well be saying that about the religions we’ve currently got going on.

Most people have some knowledge of a couple of the myths of old, because they’re still with us all over. Two major film characters at the moment are called Thor and Loki; the Mayan calendar messed everybody up a few years ago (how’s the end of the world going, by the way?) and the names of Greek and Roman gods are on pretty much everything – we even named our planets after them. But the reason they’re still not common knowledge to all is, I think, because in their original style and language, they aren’t exactly accessible. Enter Cory O’Brien and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, a fully modern update of some of the more famous tales of world mythology.

O’Brien takes us through a whistle stop tour of the myths of many cultures including Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Mayan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Japanese, African, Chinese, Sumerian, Native American and even those that the modern USA have already invented for themselves. I will also say at this point before anyone turns against the book for assuming, say, “African mythology” is one single thing, O’Brien notes that there are many, many mythologies of Africa, and he’s just picked the stories he likes best.

But these are very, very modern retellings. They’re full of swearing, slang, tangents, modern references and sheer insanity. He laughs at names like Uranus, calls out characters on their stupidity, and isn’t afraid to get filthy quickly. For example, Zeus is introduced as “just cruisin’ around, right, pickin’ mortal women to bone”, and Loki is referred to as “the god of being a needless prick all the time”.

The story titles are also wonderfully descriptive. How spider god Anansi beat Death has the clickbait title, “Local Father Discovers Immortality with This One Weird Tip!”; the Greeks get stories like “King Midas is: GOLDFINGER” and “Narcissus Probably Should Have Just Learned to Masturbate”, and I don’t think I even need to describe the content of, “Noah Is on a BOAT”.

The final chapters bring it right up to date, with tales of America’s founding fathers, Scientology, and the current scientific theory of how the universe began.

Probably the most interesting thing about it is simply that you quickly realise that a lot of the early mythologies have a surprising amount of things in common. Both the Greek and Japanese tales involve a woman getting trapped in the underworld after eating pomegranates, trees of life are plentiful, and most of them have a great flood at some point or another. Are these coincidences, or was there early contact? Or, perhaps, there is some truth in what is said…

The style is fun, but the novelty wears off fairly quickly, although I must admit that all the creation myths are pretty interesting, and it’s fun to compare and contrast. It’s also great to see some of the lesser known mythologies like Sumerian and Mayan be played with. Also refreshing is the inclusion of Judeo-Christianity, showing both that it is merely a mythology and, particularly when written in this style, just as insane and unbelievable as what the Greeks came up with.

A fun and peculiar introduction to world mythology that is definitely not safe for anyone with a nervous disposition. But, then again, the myths never really were.

“Antigoddess” by Kendare Blake (2013)

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The gods are dying...

The gods are dying…

“The feathers were starting to be a nuisance.”

Long time readers and friends of mine will know that I’ve got a bit of a thing for the myths of ancient Greece. If, at gunpoint, I had to choose a religion to go for, it would be Hellenism. I like the idea that the gods are just as flawed and messy as humans, because surely only a flawed being (or race of beings) could create a world as conflicting and conflicted as ours. Initially wary, however, that an author was moving these well established characters of myth to the young adult genre, I was curious enough about the concept and the portrayal of the gods, so decided to plunge in.

This time round, however, the gods are dying, something that until now they thought was impossible. The story opens with Athena (choking slowly to death on feathers) and Hermes (body wasting away from the inside out) searching a desert for what remains of Demeter, who is now just a thin sheet of skin stretched out for miles on the desert sand, bracing herself for the day she rips apart. She warns that the gods are going to war again and they need to seek help from the prophetess of old, Cassandra.

She, however, has long since been reincarnated and is now a high school student with vague psychic powers that she sees as a mere fluke of brain chemistry. With no idea of who she once was or that gods are real, she has few worries greater than homework or getting grounded by her parents. But her boyfriend, Aidan, will go to the ends of the earth to protect her, especially when he realises that the gods are coming aftter her and he has to reveal his true nature. Athena and Hermes, however, are on a mission to find her and must first seek the help of the last of Circe’s witches and Odysseus, the hero of Troy, also reincarnated, to get a clue as to Cassandra’s whereabouts before the rival gods seek her out and use her for their own means. It’s a race against time as each day brings every god one step closer to their final breath.

Young adult fiction takes a bashing from critics (including from myself), but as with Patrick Ness, when it’s written well and doesn’t patronise the audience, it can be great. Refreshingly, there’s no love triangle here (although, given the nature of the Greek gods, I don’t doubt the sequels will have one or two) but there is an obsessive boyfriend. The best characters are the gods, and it’s nice to see some different ones take their position at front and centre stage. Hermes, Aphrodite and Apollo are all fairly standard in these sort of stories, but for once Zeus is nowhere to be found, Demeter gets the part of a supporting character (she’s usually lucky if she even gets named) and the main character is Athena, who I’ve only ever seen as a background character. Even more excitingly, the book emphasises that she is the goddess of battle, making a change from the fact she’s usually just seen as the goddess of wisdom.

It’s also nice to see how it includes the heroes of the time, such as Cassandra herself and Odysseus, as well as the descendants of the witches, who now run a high-end escort service and provide assistance in both the boardroom and the bedroom for anyone rich enough to afford them.

Some of the imagery is pretty powerful – Athena pulling feathers out from the roof of her mouth is actually quite vile – and it’s fast paced, perhaps slacking a little in the middle, but generally racing towards the dramatic (and surprising) conclusion. It uses the same old theme of morality – how there’s no black and white,  just shades of grey – but mixes it up by showing how the gods change sides over the centuries, and that everyone has their own reason for doing what they do; no one is the villain in their own story.

The book is billed as a trilogy but the second one is only out in hardback, so I’ll wait until the paperback release. However, I probably will return here, as I like the interpretations of the characters and am curious as to how and why gods would die.

To read my take on the nature of gods and witches, head to Amazon, iTunes, SmashWords or any other ebook retailer and find my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, where the two factions come together, somewhat against their will.

 

“Dionysus” by Walter F. Otto (1965)

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13609

Welcome to the cult.

“All of antiquity extolled Dionysus as the god who gave man wine.”

Mythology is something that has always interested me, in particular the Greek myths. I’ve read a few stories about them, and I’m writing one too, so I thought it was about time I did some research and looked up the history behind one or two of them. At least, that’s what ended up happening – I didn’t quite plan it like that.

I bought this book under the assumption that it was about the myths and would tell me all the wacky adventures that my second favourite Greek god Dionysus (Hermes, in case you’re wondering) had got up to. He was the god of madness, hedonism and wine, after all, so there were bound to be some stories. What I instead got was basically a textbook that was more suited to someone reading classical studies.

I’m not going to even suggest that the book is a laugh a minute, but it actually turned out to be pretty interesting. Dionysus appears to be a late addition to the pantheon, although no one’s quite sure where he came from. He only became one of the Twelve Olympians because Hestia gave up her seat for him. He was actually half-mortal, the son of Zeus and human Semele, and was actually born from Zeus’ thigh. (Don’t ask.) Surrounded all his life by women, he threw parties and gave people the gift of wine to that they could let loose and forget their inhibitions. However, he was also the god of insanity, being insane himself, and provoking in his female followers an animalistic nature that caused them to eat their own sons.

He is associated with the bull, snake, panther and goat, and was notable for once entering the Underworld, finding his mother and bringing her back out again, a feat that no other god ever seemed to pull off. He was a symbol of life and death, and there exists a constant duality around his personality. Some believe that he and Hades were actually one at the same.

The book is intriguing and goes into some detail that I would otherwise never have found out, but at the end of the day, it is a textbook and so there are some very dry passages and also far too many untranslated Greek terms. Still, if you’re really into your mythology, it’s worth a skim.

This has been a niche post. Carry on.