Metamorphica: The myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses reimagined

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Metamorphica by Zachary Mason fantasy book reviewsMetamorphica by Zachary Mason fantasy book reviewsMetamorphica by Zachary Mason

Zachary Mason, who retold Homer’s story of the wanderings of Odysseus in his well-received 2007 debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, takes on Ovid‘s epic narrative poem Metamorphoses in his latest work, Metamorphica (2018). Mason distills Metamorphoses’ over 250 Greek myths into 53 brief stories, including the tales of Arachne, Daedalus and Icarus, Philemon and Baucis, Narcisssus, Achilles, Midas and many more.

Metamorphica is a loosely connected collection of retold myths more than a cohesive novel with a single plot. It’s rather fragmented, both as a collection and within the stories themselves, many of which are of the “slice of life” variety. But lovely and elegiac writing marks the whole set, and each individual story is a well-crafted jewel, focusing the reader’s eye on its own individual theme and distinct characters. Mason focuses on the characters’ psychology and motivations: pride, revenge, love, greed, power and other timeless passions that resonate in both the ancient Greek settings and in our modern world.

The theme of transformation or metamorphosis also frequently resurfaces in these tales: Scylla was a beautiful sea-nymph who is now a man-eating monster; King Minos spends years pursuing his vanished friend (and prisoner) Daedalus, becoming a changed man in the process. Pentheus, a disciplined man dedicated to his duty, has a life-changing encounter with Dionysos, the god of transformation. When Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis so she will release the winds to allow the Greek armada to sail to Troy, his wife Clytemnestra is never the same afterwards:

… I remembered how he’d washed his hands in a fountain after killing her with the look of a man relieved to have put a difficult task behind him, and my mind ignited like dry kindling; suddenly I was empty of love, and had no purpose in life but to be his undoing. I’ve been waiting a long time for my husband to come home.

Mason reinvents the Greek myths liberally in several of these stories, leading to some unexpected but logical twists. Midas, for example, invents the concept of coin money rather than having the magical power of turning everything he touches into gold. Icarus, with his homemade wings, dashes himself against the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than melting his wings by flying too close to the sun (though his fate in Mason’s story is quite different). Orpheus ventures into the underworld to win his lover Eurydice back from Death, but comes to a surprising realization about her as they climb through the cave toward the sun.

Although these stories are relatively independent of each other, they’re still interrelated, tied together by Greek mythology themes, some recurring characters, and a fascinating star map that visually mirrors the structure of Metamorphica, with each star named after a different story or character in the book. The map is divided into seven sections, with each section and its (imaginary, I’m fairly certain) constellations matching up with a different part of Metamorphica. Mason explains:

Lines are narrative connections which form constellations.

 

A story’s distance from the center increases with its distance from primordial time. The outermost ring is the end of the age of myth, which is the aftermath of the Trojan War or shortly thereafter.

I strongly recommend Metamorphica to any student or fan of Greek mythology, or readers who appreciate lyrical writing and fantasy that tends toward the somber and introspective.

Published July 10, 2018. A brilliant and daring novel that reimagines Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the tradition of his bestselling debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica transforms Ovid’s epic poem of endless transformation. It reimagines the stories of Narcissus, Pygmalion and Galatea, Midas and Atalanta, and strings them together like the stars in constellations—even Ovid becomes a story. It’s as though the ancient mythologies had been rewritten by Borges or Calvino; Metamorphica is an archipelago in which to linger for a while; it reflects a little light from the morning of the world.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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