book review: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

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THE CASSANDRA by Sharma Shields
★☆☆☆☆
Henry Holt, February 12, 2019

 

Writing this review hurts me a little because this was easily one of my most anticipated books of 2019, but I’m sorry, this was pretty terrible. The premise was genius: it’s the story of the Greek mythological figure Cassandra retold and set at Hanford, the research facility in the U.S. that developed the atomic bomb during WWII. But I had four main problems with The Cassandra that I just couldn’t get over: characters, plot, themes, and its success (or failure rather) as an adaptation, so let’s get straight into it.

Every single character in this book was one-dimensional. Within seconds of meeting Mildred (the Cassandra figure), her inexplicably awful mother and sister, her wise and worldly best friend Beth, the charming but cruel Gordon, and the pathetic but well-intentioned Tom Cat, you know what each one of their roles in this story is going to be (which has nothing to do with the myth at the heart of the narrative – more on that in a minute). Every single one of these characters is just pitifully one-note. None of their painfully obvious characterization is developed or explored or subverted, they all just exist comfortably as conduits for the story to advance where it needs to go.

Which brings us to the next problem, how the plot drives the characters and not the other way around. The book starts with Mildred relaying to the reader that she’s had a vision which tells her that she needs to go to Hanford, so that’s exactly what she does. She gets on the bus to head to the facility and she meets Beth, who shakes her hand and promptly declares that the two of them are going to be best friends, and that’s exactly what happens. We’re informed that Tom Cat falls in love with Mildred, because he just does, apparently; we don’t get to see anything develop in a natural or organic way. There’s no rhyme or reason to be found, the story just kind of zips along and you’re meant to accept that the characters’ actions makes sense even when there’s no basis to any of it.

And this would all be somewhat okay if the themes were sufficiently rich and engaging, but they just weren’t. Mildred starts having visions that ‘the product’ being developed at Hanford will wreak havoc and destroy innocent lives, but when she tries to warn the researchers, her concerns are ignored. Mildred then has to grapple with her own role in working for the facility that’s developing this weapon: even as a secretary, does she hold some kind of responsibility? There’s not… a whole lot of thematic depth to engage with there, despite very obvious present-day parallels, but this conflict is the main driving force in the story. And at another point, about 70% through the book, Mildred is brutally raped (as in, seriously brutal, do not enter into this book lightly), and Shields comes close to making some kind of point about how not believing Mildred about her visions has parallels to not believing women who are assaulted, but not much is really done with that opportunity.

And finally, this has to be one of the laziest myth adaptations I have ever read. There are two recognizable elements from the original story: that Cassandra can see the future and no one believes her prophecies, and that she’s raped. One of my favorite things about reading retellings is trying to discern which characters played which role in the original, and of course as a contemporary writer playing with an established story you should be allowed to invent characters and subvert character types and put your own unique stamp on the story, because otherwise what’s the point? But in this case, the original myth was such a rudimentary blueprint that it felt like the author wanted to use the myth only as an excuse to incorporate visions into the story without the reader questioning it too much. Mildred is Cassandra, of course (but why does Mildred get these visions in the first place? there’s no backstory involving an Apollo figure to rationalize this, it’s just another thing we’re meant to accept), and the person who rapes Cassandra is obviously Ajax the Lesser, but do not expect many other elements from the original myth to come into play. I certainly admired Shields’ research into the Hanford facility, but maybe she should have cracked open a copy of the The Oresteia while she was at it.

So, all things considered this was a pretty big disappointment. If you’re looking for a contemporary reimagining of a mythological story I’d suggest Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie or Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, or if you’re looking for feminist mythology there’s The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker or Circe by Madeline Miller. With so many fantastic mythological retellings published in the last few years, I think you can safely skip this one without missing much.

Thank you to Netgalley and Henry Holt for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review – sorry this didn’t work for me! 😦

25 thoughts on “book review: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

  1. Ugh, this sounds awful. When you listed the four main things wrong with it, it seemed like, well, basically everything 😂 I’ve also had a couple of my biggest anticipated ones this year fall flat, I feel your pain!! Also, there’s something extra disappointing about a book with a great cover being bad, isn’t there? Hope your next read is much better. This was such an excellent review, at least!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, right?! The one thing I didn’t comment on was the writing, which… I also didn’t love 😂 and I did highlight some spectacularly bad passages BUT there were also some lovely sentences and on the whole I don’t think the writing itself was objectively terrible, even if it wasn’t to my taste. It’s so uniquely distressing when an anticipated book falls flat! And yes, this cover is excellent, it’s the kind of thing where I’d probably want to buy a copy if I’d ended up loving it. ALAS 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s so frustrating when there are some lovely sentences interspersed with the awful ones, showing what an author is capable of elsewhere! I’m like you, I always end up highlighting the outrageously bad stuff because I just can’t believe what makes it into print sometimes…but then I don’t want to write a mean-spirited review. It takes a not insignificant amount of self-restraint sometimes 😒

        Liked by 1 person

      • It REALLY does. I also feel awful when it’s an ARC and it doesn’t have many reviews up, because on the one hand I feel bad about the potential negative impact on the author, but on the other hand if I’m not going to be honest about my thoughts on a book then what’s the point? That’s when I have to make an effort to be Thoughtful and Analytical and not just rant about how terrible the book was.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you! That makes me feel better. Because I mean, I DO enjoy writing negative reviews, there is something cathartic about a good rant. But my goal is to come off as more analytical than bitchy and it is a fine line to walk sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sometimes I end up ranting and deleting most of it while editing the review because I think it sounds unnecessarily bitchy even if I did truly dislike something and want to scream about it. Yours never seem like that, they absolutely come across as analytical and the kind of thing I want to know in whether I’d like a book or not!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oooh that’s a good strategy 😂 Usually I just opt to text a friend and make them listen to me bitch about this book they haven’t read for a couple of minutes. Your negative reviews always come across as so professional too! There’s something fun about articulating where exactly a book went wrong, imo.

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  2. I love this review! And I am very sorry this disappointed (it is too early in the year for a one star book!); I was also excited about this, as you know, but now I am a bit glad I could not request a copy. The myth is too close to my heart to bear the disappointment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had my first 5 star and my first 1 star of the year back to back! At least we got the dreaded 1 star out of the way early. I just cannot imagine you enjoying this in the slightest, so I am also very glad you weren’t able to get a copy. Onward to better Cassandra retellings.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh, I know! I’m afraid we’re going to start oversaturating the market with awful gimmicky retellings and then the Greek myth fad will die a natural death. Which is sad because I ADORE Greek myth retellings.

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  3. Oh, no! I was hoping to read this book! Your reviews are so trustworthy though, now I wonder if I should try this one at all. I mean, I did wonder if so many retellings in recent years would mean that some of them might not reach their potential but reading this review has made me very unwilling to read it now. Let’s see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The good thing is that it’s not a very long book, so it’s not a huge commitment if you do decide to read it! I’m actually very curious to see what everyone else will make of this book once it’s published, it has a low average on Goodreads right now but there are a couple of rave reviews that give me pause and make me wonder if I didn’t just miss something 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

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