by Jess Ketley
Stone Blind is the fourth novel by classicist Natalie Haynes, who is probably best known for her other retellings A Thousand Ships and Children of Jocasta, as well as her BBC Radio 4 show Standing Up for the Classics with Natalie Haynes. It was also the Classics Society Book Club book for December/January! It – supposedly, as we’ll get into – follows the story of Medusa from Greek myth. I read it, and as you can expect for a very opinionated classicist, I have many, many thoughts.
First of all – this really shouldn’t be advertised as a Medusa retelling. Because it’s actually a Perseus retelling, but from the side of Medusa. And by side I mean the moral side, not the perspective of Medusa. There are very few chapters actually from Medusa’s perspective and she is barely developed as a character. Since she is on the cover and the book is named after her I was expecting her to be the main character, but really she is a side character in the overall narrative. This is my biggest grief overall with the book – I feel like I misled into reading a very different book then what I expected.
However, the book is beautifully written, with excellent descriptions and gorgeous prose. There are several points of amazing descriptions which I loved. I especially appreciate how Haynes wrote combat scenes. The depiction of the Gigantomachy was easy to follow, something I normally struggle with in books. It felt fluid and I felt involved in the action.
Overall, something I noticed and appreciated was Hayne’s commitment to trying to stick to the original myths and use Greek terms in the book. As a Classicist I thoroughly enjoyed how many Greek words were used – there’s also a glossary at the back for readers who may not be familiar. Being able to see so many different myths depicted in the book was great; however, I do think it negatively impacted the pacing of the story, which often felt like we were jumping between several different narratives which were only briefly connected. I felt like some of them could have been cut without impacting the overall narrative while improving the reading experience – for example, the birth of Athena. This is also linked to the fact that there were far too many POVs, many of which are only used for one chapter, which was just confusing.
I also had issues with the ending which felt slightly out of left field, and I felt like it went against a lot of the characterisation that occurred earlier in the book. Overall, however, I felt like most of the characterisation was very lacklustre. Many of the characters felt incredibly one dimensional, even the ones who featured very prominently, like Perseus and Andromeda. The only character who really felt developed to me was Athena. I really liked the depiction of Athena in this book – she’s not presented as a girlboss feminist figure like we sometimes see in media, but rather the flawed, arrogant, but capable and intelligent figure we see if the original myths.
Another thing I really disliked the fact that Haynes continually accuses the reader of sympathising with Perseus, who is portrayed incredibly negatively in the book, to the point where it seems kind of ham-fisted. I understand that in many portrayals of the Perseus myth, he is the hero, but this is not the case in this book. If you had no prior knowledge of the myth before reading Stone Blind, you would likely not think this, however. Hayne’s narrative is very skewed against him – while I agree with the fact that Perseus kind of sucks, the fact that the narrative seems unaware of its own tone and portrayals is very frustrating.
In the end, I didn’t enjoy Stone Blind as much as I wanted to. This was a very anticipated read for me, and I felt like it did not meet my expectations; this is not so much as it missed the target, but that it was aiming for a completely different one than what the marketing of the book led me to expect. I think if it had been advertised more truthfully – namely, as a Perseus retelling – I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more.
I would love to hear your thoughts about Stone Blind! And if you’re interested in reading more mythology-based books, make sure to come along to Classics Society Book Club! We read a book based on world mythology every month – you can find more information in our Facebook group! Our next book, in anticipation of our talk with Madeline Miller on 17th March, is Circe! I hope to see you on 1st March to talk about it.