For Helen of Sparta being the most beautiful woman in the world is more of a curse than a blessing as she becomes the focus of desire for every man who sets eyes on her. As Helen matures into womanhood, it is generally accepted she will marry Menelaus but Helen is plagued with horrific nightmares of being kidnapped by a foreign prince and taken to city that eventually lies in ruins. Since he is prominent in the dreams, Helen is sure marrying Menelaus will make these terrible visions come true and since no one will listen to her, she must take her fate into her own hands.
As suitors arrive at her father’s palace to compete for her hand, Helen finds herself drawn to Theseus, the son of Poseidon, who seems to be the only man who can resist her great beauty and see the woman within. Helen confides her fears in Theseus, begging him to help her escape from Sparta, and offering him marriage in return. Theseus agrees, but when he consults the gods, he is warned fleeing with Helen will have terrible consequences as the mighty Zeus has his own plans for his daughter and he will not be thwarted.
Arriving safely in Athens, Helen masquerades as an Egyptian princess, dying her golden hair and darkening her skin, however Theseus and Helen’s idyllic world is soon under threat as it becomes increasingly clear the fickle gods will never leave them alone. As promised, Helen’s flight is about to have serious repercussions for the couple and they are powerless to prevent the chain of events leading to their downfall.
Helen of Sparta is a refreshingly new twist on the story of Helen where we meet a woman determined to escape the fate that has been set out before her by a father who has little love for her. Helen is usually portrayed as a victim so it makes a nice change to see her fighting for her destiny and this sees her escaping from Sparta with Theseus. In the original myth, Theseus and his best friend, Pirithous, both demi-gods, vow to marry a daughter of Zeus, and Theseus sets his sights on Helen, abducting her until she is old enough to marry him. Theseus places Helen in the care of his mother, while he keeps his part of the bargain to help Pirithous enter the Underworld where he plans to abduct Persephone to make her his wife. While Theseus is trapped in the Underworld, Helen’s brothers attack Athens, rescuing their sister and returning her to Sparta where she eventually marries Menelaus.
In Helen of Sparta, events follow a slightly different path as Helen is the one who instigates the flight from Sparta and proves to be a feisty and headstrong young woman rather than the demure character from the myths. The story is as firmly anchored in Greek history as is possible but the mythological elements are not ignored and the will of the gods is very evident throughout. I’m so glad the author chose not to strip away the gods to ground this tale in reality because I love Greek mythology and the inclusion makes this a far richer reading experience for me.
The novel has a dual narration with Helen’s being in the first person and that of Theseus being in the third person which really works since it brings an immediacy to Helen’s story while also allowing us to look into Helen’s world from the outside in. Theseus does not disappoint as a hero and you really get the sense of safety Helen feels while in his presence, so much so I wouldn’t mind being abducted by him myself! As the son of a god, Theseus is larger than life, a loving man well respected by his people, yet, he is also vulnerable as he has endured a lot of heartache and fears now that he has found some measure of happiness with Helen, it will all fall apart again. Theseus seems to a have blind loyalty towards the gods, spending most of his time appeasing them with gifts and sacrifices, however they are not very deserving of his devotions.
Helen and Theseus have great chemistry as a couple and I found myself rooting for them, despite the inevitable sense of foreboding and when the gods exact their terrible price, it is as heartbreaking as any Greek tragedy should be. The love scenes between them are very sensual with the focus being on love rather than lust which is just as well because once their relationship is consummated, they spend a lot of time between the sheets. Did I mention Theseus is hot?
The only misstep for me was the idea to have Helen pretend to be an Egyptian princess and even go to the extent of having the pharaoh’s blessing. Why would the pharaoh care about Helen’s fate? Well, this is neatly explained away by having the Egyptian gods worried about the consequences of Helen’s future and the portents of a great war.
The book has quite an abrupt ending as Helen is taken back to Sparta and this will annoy casual readers, however if you are familiar with how things played out for Helen, you will be aware of where her journey goes from here and nothing more needs to be said. Still, I think it would be a shame for it to end here because I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel.