Kerry Greenwood

The Delphic Women, book 1

Mandarin (1995)

ISBN: 9781863305617

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in November 2008)

Kerry Greenwood is a versatile and prolific author; Cassandra is a novel that shows off many of her strengths. In particular, it demonstrates her ability to build a solid, internally consistent plot; to bring a different world to life; and to paint portraits of vivid characters that come to life and engage the readers’ interest. As the title so blatantly announces, this is a re-telling of the legend of Cassandra. Even people unfamiliar with the Greek legends Greenwood is working with here are likely to know of Cassandra, the woman who always seemed to prophesy doom and gloom in the future – accurately. In this version, Cassandra’s gift of prophecy is more complex – initially a true gift, which assists her and those around her; and later, after she is cursed by the gods, a “gift” which brings only sorrow to her and those around her.

Cassandra is a princess of Troy, and in the ordinary way of things it’s unlikely she would ever meet Diomenes, a humble healer in the temple of Apollo, far away in another land. But the gods have made a wager as to whether love is stronger than death, and these two young people will be used to play that wager out. Not only their own lives will be warped and damaged and possibly destroyed by that wager. The wager will ultimately lead to the Trojan war, and untold death and misery.

But Greenwood starts her story long before that day, and shows us much of Cassandra and Diomenes before they ever meet. Both have been blessed by the gods (it appears) and grow up in situations where they have very specific roles to fulfil. Cassandra is a princess of Troy, and must fulfil certain ceremonial roles and ultimately mate and bear children as dictated by others. Diomenes is a healer, and must learn a great deal, including how a healer should behave. Despite the rigidity of some aspects of their lives, they both also have considerable freedom; in particular, Cassandra’s freedom to take lovers may surprise those used to seeing women’s sexuality used as a way of controlling or limiting them (and certainly this happens to other women in the story). Greenwood tells us a lot about life in Ancient Greece through the eyes of these two, yet does this in such a subtle way that the reader is busy enjoying the story and not noticing how much background they’re absorbing.

So far as I know – I’m not an expert on this period – Greenwood is as historically accurate as is possible given our sometimes limited knowledge of the period. It’s certainly credible, and she brings Ancient Greece and the surrounding area to life in a way that quickly absorbs the reader and makes the characters immediately understandable.

In a number of places and ways – particularly the end of the novel – Cassandra departs from the generally “agreed” version of Cassandra’s life. Greenwood’s afterword makes it clear that she’s done this deliberately, and for good reasons. I didn’t have a problem with this – the story flows well and is internally coherent. Readers unfamiliar with the Greek legends probably won’t notice that there’s anything “wrong” with the plot, and those who do notice should still enjoy this as a novel that offers a credible alternative scenario.

Although the novel focuses largely on Cassandra and Diomenes, the novel has a large cast of characters. Some of them will be at least vaguely familiar to even the casual reader; recent movies will mean that many readers will feel a greater sense of familiarity with some of these characters and names. Greenwood infuses all of her characters with life; all are multi-dimensional and all are very real in their delights, sufferings, and challenges. The unfamiliarity of some names may mean a reader has to work a little harder than usual at keeping who’s who straight, but the characters are sufficiently individual that this should be a minor challenge at best.

Cassandra is an enjoyable novel that takes a slightly new approach to a familiar story, and carries it off successfully. It should appeal to people with an interest in the classical legends, as well as readers who prefer their speculative fiction set in environments with limited technology. The heart of Greenwood’s story is her characters, and a wide variety of readers will empathise with them. This particular novel may be difficult to find, being some years old, but it’s worth the search.