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Book Review: Lies We Sing To The Sea by Sarah Underwood

Book Review: Lies We Sing To The Sea by Sarah Underwood

If you’re familiar with Homer’s Odyssey, you’ll know the fate of the twelve hanged maids, executed for disloyalty and betrayal when they were merely doing their Queen’s bidding. The perspectives of the wronged maids was more carefully explored in Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novella The Penelopiad, which saw Penelope reminiscing on her life and the maids intermittently lamenting their losses and dreaming of what might have been. Penelope’s choices cast a dark shadow throughout Sarah Underwood’s debut too, yet the Queen of Ithaca is nothing more than a bitter memory. Instead, Lies We Sing To The Sea puts the haunting tale of the hanged maids front and centre in a ruthless pursuit of justice and vengeance.

In the cursed kingdom of Ithaca, twelve maidens are hanged each spring. A gift to Poseidon. Leto might be the daughter of an Oracle but even she can’t avoid what fate has in store for her. She is taken to the gallows and it’s there that she meets her death. But that isn’t her end. Awakening on the shore of a long-forgotten island, Leto meets its enigmatic keeper Melantho, who has been trying and failing to break the curse for much longer than a single lifetime. On the cusp of giving up, she knows that Leto is her last chance. The last hope to save future maidens and claim retribution for the ones already lost. But to break the curse, Leto must kill the last prince of Ithaca.

Leto doesn’t have any love for Prince Mathias. After all, it’s his bloodline that condemned the maidens, and it was he who ordered Leto’s death too. But getting close enough to kill him means also getting close enough to know him, and what Leto discovers is a future king who is desperate and afraid, who is gentle and kind and might not deserve the death she intends to inflict on him. But the maids didn’t have a choice, and Leto doesn’t either. Her deadly plot with Melantho takes her into the heart of the palace, where vicious threats and dark prophecies lurk around every corner. And with time running out, Leto must make a choice between her heart and her mission; between her loyalty and love for Melantho and her grudging soft spot for Mathias.

As the current pulled her away from Itahca, the little island she had spent her life always plotting, planning, hoping to leave, Leto sank quietly under the water, her eyes closed, her neck marked starkly by the rope and scales beneath it. And somewhere, beneath the surface, something—someone—stirred.”

Lies We Sing To The Sea is an immersive and transportive tale of love, loss, death and destiny. It’s less a reimagining as it is a reclamation, taking a single, specific thread from The Odyssey and weaving it into a story of tragedy and revenge for a new audience. It’s not as ambitious as Atwood’s The Penelopiad (and certainly not as epic as the original source material), but it would be fruitless to compare the two. Underwood’s novel is a YA story through and through, high on youthful drama, playful interchanges, fierce urgency and the angst of first love. And at the heart of the story are three damaged souls – broken by all the things that have been taken from them but desperate to make amends, whatever sacrifice it demands of them.

Leto is a ship adrift on her own but put her next to Malantho and they’re a powerful force to be reckoned with. Their love story is heartrendingly tender, not just because they share the same trauma but because their hearts are the same. They’re both fierce, yes, but they’re also both driven by love, compassion and empathy. Even as they plot Mathias’ death, they’re still able to feel sympathy for him. He unwittingly steals a little piece of Leto’s heart – as well as a good chunk of the reader’s too – which makes her quest for justice all the more complicated. Still, these are characters that will do what’s right in the end, even if they suffer because of it, and those are always the characters worth rooting for and worth remembering.

Yet not every character is given the same time and care as the central three. Peripheral characters – like Mathias’ guard Alexios, who’s instantly suspicious of Leto, or Alexios’ sister, Olympia, who suffers from a serious case of unrequited love for the prince – are frustratingly one-note. Then there’s the book’s pacing. Whilst the tense opening of the book hooks you in instantly, the pace doesn’t always follow a natural rhythm. Leto’s time on the island, where she learns the skills that she’ll need to kill a prince, is underdeveloped, and the end – whilst fitting – feels rushed. After such an emotive build-up, the denouement takes just a few pages, which short-changes the characters. But Greek tragedies aren’t exactly known for their happy endings, and that kind of finale can be difficult to translate for YA fantasy romance.

What this book has in spades, however, is atmosphere. There’s an oceanic supernatural element to this tale, which intertwines wonderfully with the themes of vengeful gods and terrible curses. Poseidon might be as physically absent as Penelope herself, but the sea and its power plays such an essential part in the story. Underwood’s descriptions of the seascape and the magic it holds transports readers to another world, one that’s unforgiving and brutal but also beautiful. There’s light to be found in the darkness, in one maid’s love for another, or in the lovely face of a prince with a heart of gold.

With this debut, Underwood imagines what the maids would have been like and humanises them, giving the supposedly ‘disloyal’ Malantho something vital that she was denied: a voice. And oh how that voice sings.


Lies We Sing To The Sea is published by Electric Monkey on 16 March 2023

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