With divine beauty comes dangerous power.
Helen believed she could escape her destiny and save her people from utter destruction. After defying her family and betraying her intended husband, she found peace with her beloved Theseus, the king of Athens and son of Poseidon.
But peace did not last long. Cruelly separated from Theseus by the gods, and uncertain whether he will live or die, Helen is forced to return to Sparta. In order to avoid marriage to Menelaus, a powerful prince unhinged by desire, Helen assembles an array of suitors to compete for her hand. As the men circle like vultures, Helen dreams again of war—and of a strange prince, meant to steal her away. Every step she takes to protect herself and her people seems to bring destruction nearer. Without Theseus’s strength to support her, can Helen thwart the gods and stop her nightmare from coming to pass?
"Only fools bargain with the gods; only fools trust in their promises, their gifts. Fools and children and lovers."
Ever since reading Helen of Sparta, I have been anxiously awaiting its sequel. I loved getting to know Helen and what happened to her before she became known as Helen of Troy, and boy did I love Theseus! But after attempting to thwart the gods and their plans for war by running away with and marrying Theseus, Helen was cruelly separated from him by those gods and delivered back to Sparta and the fate she had so desperately been trying to avoid. And that's where By Helen's Hand begins.
It's hard to review this book without revealing plot points, but I'm going to try and hope that I still make sense while being vague enough to avoid spoilers. I have very mixed feelings about By Helen's Hand, and it pains me to say it. Amalia Carosella writes beautifully, but I found the first half of this book to be rather slow and repetitive as Helen mopes around missing Theseus, fearing Menelaus, and bemoaning her cursed beauty, and I questioned the necessity for the points of view of several of her suitors. The story really kicks into gear once the games for Helen's hand have been concluded and her fate as Menelaus's wife is decided. Plotting, deception, and intrigue abound as Helen tries everything she can think of to save her people from war and herself from Menelaus's jealous anger.
What I love about this story is that, rather than portray Helen's beauty as the sole cause of the Trojan War, Carosella paints a picture of a woman cursed by the gods with a beauty that drives men crazy, "a woman cursed to bring ruin upon men for the glory of her father." Men can't help but be bewitched by her. Combine that with many city-states just looking for an excuse to go to war and we have a much more complex picture of Helen and what actually caused the Trojan War. (Short answer: the gods!) I also love that we get to know Paris. We met him briefly in the first book, and we all know what happens when Paris sees Helen in Sparta, but I love that this story leads us up to that moment from his point of view as well. I really enjoyed getting to know who Paris was before Troy.
Finally, the other aspect of this story that didn't sit quite right with me was the ending. It was not at all what I was expecting, and it really threw me for a loop. I had hoped for a certain outcome, but the way that it came about seemed so fantastical to me that I had to go look it up to see how plausible it was. Turns out there are several conflicting versions of Helen's story surviving from antiquity, and Carosella's version of Helen's whereabouts during and after the war is based on one of them. So I had to kind of sit and think about it for a while to determine how I felt about it. It makes sense when I think about how Helen, through her efforts to thwart the fate the gods had planned for her, actually ended up bringing her prophecy to fruition, that it is also by her hand that her final outcome is determined. It's kind of only fair after a lifetime of the gods torturing her. Still, the ending seemed a bit rushed and left me feeling like I needed a little more payoff after waiting so long for it.
Overall I did like the book--though as I've pointed out, some parts more than others--and I think this duology is well worth a read for anyone interested in Ancient Greece and mythology. These books offer great insight into the figures central to the Trojan War and breathe far more life and substance into a woman who deserves to be known as much more than "the face that launched a thousand ships."
My Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5
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By Helen's Hand