Thursday, February 3, 2022

Fantasy Book Review: Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane (transgender)

Wrath Goddess Sing
Author: Maya Deane
Publication Date: June 7th 2022
Publisher: William Morrow
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Protagonist Gender: Transgender
Sexuality: Straight

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this is likely not the fantasy you're expecting, but it's the fantasy we all deserve. Maya Deane manages to take familiar, some might even say tired, old tales of classical mythology and gives them new life and new meaning. Wrath Goddess Sing utterly transforms the familiar in a story that incorporates themes of transgender identity, personal trauma, faith, love, and war.

Portraying Achilles as a transwoman is only the stepping-off point for the tale, but the opening chapters hit hard. There's a power and a beauty to the transgender community as Deane portrays it, outcasts who've embraced a found family, and the way Achilles' divine transformation changes her fate, even as it destroys her relationships, is the emotional heart of everything that follows. Granted, there were times where I resented that transformation, as it shifts something grounded and relevant into something fanciful, but that says something all on its own.

While this is, ostensibly at least, the story of the Trojan War, it's a version unlike any you've ever read before. It's less about the lust for an impossible beauty and more about the hunger for power. Deane looks at what it means to be divine, to be worshiped, to have mortals fight for you . . . and to die for you. It's like a high-stakes game of poker, but one where the currency is the power of human lives rather than anything financial. Helen is a bit much, especially at first, over-the-top and completely unlike what the legends have led us to expect, but I love what Deane has done with her, establishing her as a worthy foil for Achilles.

As for Achilles, she's a tough protagonist to follow. She's difficult, selfish, brooding, and often petty. I found myself furious with her as often as I was worried for her, and I don't mind saying that some of her decisions (or periods of indecision) left me exasperated. Ironically, for a story that has a lot to say about the transgender experience and the privilege of passing, she's more masculine as a transformed woman than she was as a transgender one, especially when contrasted against the likes of Damia and Melia, transwomen from different stages in her life, one a friend and lover of her found family who rejected her for no longer being kallai, and the other a slave-girl she once rejected (and still cannot befriend) for being kallai herself. In many ways, I'd argue that the Egyptian sorceress Meryapi, friend and ally of her extended family, is the heroine here, a wonderful woman whom I did admire, did love, and did cheer for every time she appears on the page. She supports Achilles, sacrifices for her, and acts as a role model of powerful, self-confident femininity - without getting into spoilers, how she deals with certain aspects of womanhood are a wonderful contrast to how Achilles does the same.

My favorite scenes in the book are those that have nothing to do with Troy or the war. The transgender kallai community on Skyros, complete with their underground ceremonies, is something I wish we got more of. I could read a whole novel about them, their lives, and their loves. Topping even that, though, is the journey that Achilles and Meryapi take into the heart of Egypt, a quest that is equal parts epic fantasy and treasure hunting adventure, with some of the most thrilling moments in the whole story. 

The last act of the novel is a tough one, marking a significant change in tone and emotion, with a great deal of darkness, sorrow, hopelessness, and anger. It's heavily influenced by the magic and mythologies of the tale, but it's also somehow the most human part of the story. I honestly wasn't sure where it was leading or how it could possibly end, and it does become more complex and spiritual than I expected, but I have zero qualms with how it all played out. Wrath Goddess Sing is a beautifully written book, complex and layered, with characters who breathe new life into legends.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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