Review: Alcestis by Katharine Beutner

Cover the Alcestis, by Katharine Buetner

Alcestis cover

Alcestis
Katherine Beutner
Historical Fiction/Mythology
February 2010
Soho Press
ISBN: 978-1569476178
292 pages

“For you alone, dear among women, had the courage to redeem your husband from Hades at the price of your life.” – Elders of Pherae, Euripides, Alcestis


The Alcestis we know through myth is the ideal wife, one who loved her husband so much that she died to save his life, and went to the Underworld in his place. This is about as much information as we have about her. She is written about in songs and poems and Euripides wrote of her great sacrifice in his play by the same name.

Who was this woman, Alcestis? What happened to her during the three days she spent in Hades’ realm? Euripides’ play bears her name, but it is a story told by Apollo and features Heracles’ heroic travels to the Underworld to retrieve her. Alcestis has no voice.

In this novel by Katharine Beutner, Alcestis tells us her story in her own words, starting with the story her family has told her of her own birth, from which her mother dies. Alcestis lives in a time and a place where the gods—local minor wind gods that echo through her father’s palace and volatile, capricious Olympians—are a part of everyday life, and it is up to mortals to step lightly lest they inadvertently offend (or attract the attention of) these beings.

We follow Alcestis as she grows up in the same claustrophobic chambers that saw the birth of her and her siblings and the death of their mother. At fifteen, she marries King Admetus of Pherae, and so she passes from the house of her father to the house of her husband, becoming queen. Her new husband is a favorite of Apollo, who, as a wedding gift, has arranged with the Fates that the king will be able to escape death past his fated time if another will take his place in the realm of Hades.

Death comes for Admetus, and none agree to die in his stead. Alcestis steps forward and agrees to take her husband’s place, thus securing her place in legend, though that is not why she offers herself up. In play and poem, this is all we know. Alcestis goes to the realm of Hades for her husband, the epitome of spousal love. Heracles later travels there to wrestle death in order to retrieve her for her husband. Of what happens to Alcestis in the Underworld, nothing is said.

Beutner’s Alcestis is taken to the land of the dead, which she finds to be a completely alien landscape. Negotiating her encounters with Hades and Persephone is nothing like negotiating encounters with human kings and queens, the dead roaming the asphodel fields are not what she expects, and talking to Hades and falling under Persephone’s power forever alters Alcestis’ perceptions.

Reading Alcestis’ story, in her own voice, from her perception, will forever alter our view of her, her legend, and I think, the other voiceless women of myth and story.

Visit the author’s blog. Follow the author on Twitter.

Apparently the powers that be require disclosure on where we book bloggers/reviews get our books for review, so in the interest of complying: I purchased this from an online retailer.

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About Jessica

Dork extraordinaire, that's me! An unhealthy knowledge of Star Trek, a love of books, a fondness for purring cats.
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