Mythological retellings are all the rage in the world of publishing right now—from Madeline Miller’s Circe to Jenny Saint’s Elektra and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girlscontemporary fiction is taking a long-overdue look at the frequent misogynist way we’ve framed some of the most famous stories in Western literature.
But I can tell you right now, you’ve never read anything like Maya Deane’s Wrath Goddess Sing.
A fresh spin on the story of the Trojan war, Deane reimagines the famous Greek warrior Achilles as the transgender demigod daughter of Athena. (Given there’s an entire section of the Achilles legend that involves him disguising himself as a woman named Pyrrha and hiding from Odysseus among the princesses of Skyros, this actually as much of a swerve from the original tale as you might think.)
but-while Wrath Goddess Sing is certainly a story about gender and identity, it’s also one about power, love, and faith. And Deane’s story swells to include much more than the fate of a single woman or even a particular single city and Achilles becomes increasingly enmeshed in the affairs of gods as well as men.
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
Achilles has fled her home and her vicious Myrmidon clan to live as a woman with the kallai, the transgender priestesses of Great Mother Aphrodite. When Odysseus comes to recruit the “prince” Achilles for a war against the Hittites, she prepares to die rather than fight as a man. However, her divine mother de ella, Athena, intervenes, transforming her body de ella into the woman’s body she always longed for, and promises her everything: glory, power, fame, victory in war, and, most importantly, a child born of her own body. Reunited with her beloved cousin, Patroklos, and his brilliant wife, the sorceress Meryapi, Achilles sets out to war with a vengeance.
But the gods—a dysfunctional family of abusive immortals that have glutted on human sacrifices for centuries—have woven ancient schemes more blood-soaked and nightmarish than Achilles can imagine. At the center of it all is the cruel, immortal Helen, who sees Achilles as a worthy enemy after millennia of ennui and emptiness. In love with her newfound nemesis of her, Helen sets out to destroy everything and everyone Achilles cherishes, seeking a battle to the death.
An innovative spin on a familiar tale, this is the Trojan War unlike anything ever told, and an Achilles whose vulnerability is revealed by the people she chooses to fight…and chooses to trust.
Wrath Goddess Sing will be released on June 7, 2022, from William Morrow & Company, but we’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt from the story below!
Even before she opened her eyes, Achilles knew she was dreaming. It was the quality of the light through her eyelids that told her she was not in the world of the living: gray light, a gradient from pale silver to deep charcoal that barely altered when she forced her eyelids open. She reeled, twisted, and scrambled upright, her feet unsure against a floor of loose, crumbling tile. Only—
It was not tile. She bent and scooped up a flat white cracked thing from the ground, turning it over in her hands, wondering at its strange triangular shape and unexpected lightness; it looked like stone, but felt like dead, porous wood. There were more besides it; she was standing on a pile of such tiles. Some were linked by twisted knobs to longer, thinner sticks, stalks, or tubes of—
She dropped the human scapula and it fell soundlessly away.
Something crunched behind her. She turned.
On a toppled wall—no, on the spine of some primordial monster—sat an owl with gray eyes. The owl tilted her head and regarded Achilles with blank fascination. Shhhrrrrk. Shhhhrrrk. shhhhrrrk. The sound was talons on bone as the owl sharpened her claws.
Achilles stepped toward her, wary of her footing. She picked her way toward the spine and the owl, bonemeal crunching under her toes and bonedust filling her lungs. The owl never moved, never looked away, and never seemed to grow nearer. The ground sloped downward, so Achilles broke into a run.
It did not occur to her to speak.
As she ran toward the owl, the distance grew, and the creature swelled to fill the sky. The ground changed again and again—leathery scales, then colorless feathers that dissolved into dust when her feet came down, then the shells of enormous tortoises, which cracked and broke beneath her, then a sea of eggshells—and the owl rose up before her. as vast as the mountains above Aiolia, where the gods lived.
Finally Achilles stopped, staring up into the owl’s silver eyes. “Athena,” she cried. “Why am I here?”
The owl’s eyes flashed, and the world of bones took on a different shape. It was Skyros, but made of bones; she stood on the garden terrace, but all the plants were dead, withered to grasping skeletal hands. The seas were dust, filled with the skeletons of monsters.
In place of the owl, a woman stood beside her—but she was no woman. No woman’s eyes were so unnaturally large, too enormous to turn in their sockets—owl’s eyes. She had no beak, but her thin gray lips skinned back to show her teeth de ella, row after row of small white points exposed in a half-moon smile. “My daughter,” she purred. Her low, strange voice from Ella sounded like tidewater on shingle, rough and raspy in one dimension, soft and sinuous in another. “It is easier to see you every night. You are beautiful, but you will become so much more beautiful when the fire inside you grows. This dull red of your hair will heat to a burning gold and the blood in you will boil. Your skin will be as molten metal, and even the gods will fear you.” The Silent One’s tongue flickered out, sliding along the margins of her thin-lipped mouth, as if the idea itself were nutritive. “Then your nickname—Pyrrha—will be prophetic, and the flames of your hair will consume this world.”
Achilles stared at her. “Of course I would dream Athena as a monster.”
The gray-eyed owl-woman tilted her head to one side. “That’s humour, yes? I remember humour. Wit. Verbal irony. A playful juxtaposition of uncollapsed possibilities. The sudden withdrawal of a threat. Laughter comes from the sound that our animal ancestors made to signal that the predators had all gone away. Are you trying to reassure yourself?”
The dreams had never been so talkative before. Achilles stared into the silver eyes of the Silent One, and the Silent One stared back. “I was working up the nerve to jump.”
Athena surged forward and suddenly was standing between Achilles and the edge of the terrace. “Do not. Your body is not strong enough yet to survive. I would lose you.”
“You do not have me,” Achilles objected, “unless you are madness.”
She rose to her feet. She might as well kill herself in the dream, for practice. “I will not be carried away from here and turned into a man.”
“My little fox will not turn you into a man unless I permit it,” said the Silent One. “I own him, as I own you.”
“I am not about to discuss my future with an imaginary dream-goddess,” Achilles said. She approached the edge and realized that she was naked. Flushed with anger, she covered her groin, though it was futile to try to hide her penis from her from a figment of her own imagination.
“If you hate it so much, cut it off.” Athena handed her an enormous piece of flint. “It will only hurt for a moment. The other women will find you and stop the bleeding. Odysseus will of course locate you in the morning, but at that point he cannot very well force you to be a man, can he?”
Achilles supposed this idea must be lurking somewhere in his own mind. Before Skyros, she had thought about it constantly, but Kheiron’s combat training had included a number of lectures on bleeding out and the enormous arteries in the groin, and it had never been the most appealing way to die. Now, with discovery at hand, she was obviously rethinking it.
“Or,” the Silent One whispered, gliding closer to her, “I can make it go away. All you have to do is ask, fire-daughter, and I will reshape you.” Her hand shot out, heeled, striking Achilles in the lower belly, sending cold shooting through her. “You will have a womb.”
desde Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2022 by Maya Deane. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
Wrath Goddess Sing is available on June 7.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.