Review: “Nobody’s Prize” by Esther Friesner

For the love of books

Nobody’s Prize is a completely different picture of Helen and Greek mythology.  In Nobody’s Princess, Helen was on her own turf, dealing with arrogant leaders of men and a critical audience.  Nobody’s Prize begins Helen’s journey away from Sparta in Ancient Greece and into the unknown.  Disguised as a commoner and a boy, Helen now has more problems than ever.  Thrilled to have joined the famous Argonauts together with her twin brothers Castor and Pollux, Helen soon realizes the truth about this group of warriors and its fearsome leader, Jason.  Clytemnestra’s engagement and warfare lessons are nothing in comparison to all-out brutality and rampage as Helen witnesses what really happens behind the events listed in the well-composed ballads of Orpheus.

This long sea voyage will take this courageous Spartan princess across the Black Sea and to royal households, to burned villages and fields of dying warriors.  Meeting a very “gay” Hercules, a dangerously mad Medea with a possible split personality, and a bevy of other re-created mythological figures leads to a story that is much darker than a superficial Greek myth out of a storybook.  Relying on good friends and her own inner strength, Helen must prove again why she deserves her fame for beauty and brains in Nobody’s Prize.  This time, Esther Friesner’s protagonist is faced with the barbarian environment of Asia Minor, not to mention seeing the world through a man’s eyes thanks to her new identity.

Graphic violence and cruelty are part of the daily routine aboard the Argo.  Theseus is out of the story, but in comes a new antagonist: Jason.  Like Theseus, Jason vehemently claims to be the son of a god, but he never acts like one.  In fact, he is no better than a greedy warlord intent on destroying villages and finding treasure for himself.  The whole venture of the Argo is merely a farce under bad intentions, a crew of warriors deceived by the very man whom they rely on for direction and leadership.  Just as Orpheus shows the difference between elaboration, exaggeration, and the truth in his charming musical epics about relatively small adventures, Helen must accept how human life is “the survival of the fittest” and that moral motives are rare.

She endures lies, treachery, and prejudice even as her masculine alter ego, the horror of war and death finally uncensored in its reality right before her eyes.  Friesner doesn’t really add more themes to her sequel to Nobody’s Princess, but her direct discussion of homosexuality is a new topic previously uncovered.  Hercules, one of Greek mythology’s greatest and most famous heroes, is now a boisterous gay who takes credit for other people’s achievements instead of the vigorous womanizer described in many Greek myths.  Likewise, Jason is now a cold womanizer who uses Medea to gain status and wealth while building a completely false illusion of heroism.  All the leaders that Helen meets seem to have their illustrious reputations completely constructed out of a storyteller’s imagination, the real personae being quite the opposite.

Another way that Nobody’s Prize expands even further the world of Nobody’s Princess is through the subject of romance and relationships.  Love is not on Helen’s to-do list, but she falls in love anyway and eventually accepts her femininity on account of this unexpected circumstance.  Unfortunately, her first love is unrequited for a very good reason, one that takes her a long time to discover despite the constant trouble of later masquerading as the huntress Atalanta.  Although refusing Hercules’ advances or untangling herself from a bittersweet love triangle makes Nobody’s Prize more about romantic issues than about Helen’s maturity, the novel still finishes Helen’s adolescence as she ultimately acknowledges her role as future queen and representative of her culture.

Interestingly, Friesner stops her narrative right before Helen’s engagement to Menelaus, which culminates Helen’s childhood.  Helen’s adulthood as “Helen of Troy” is left a mystery, for Friesner does not contemplate how this clever and practical young woman became an intrigant and the reason for a war on a great city.  Nevertheless, Nobody’s Prize is exciting and eventful, despite more sexuality and innuendo.  The Greek myth of “Jason and the Golden Fleece” as well as the adventures of the Argonauts come alive in Nobody’s Prize with gritty visualization and insightful commentary, especially with Helen’s strategic planning and fighting.  It’s a smooth ending to a tasteful, fresh, and detailed re-imagining of one of history’s and mythology’s most elusive and mysterious female figures.

Original review: Part 4: Helen of Troy is now a headstrong and indomitable warriorPart 5: Helen of Troy is now a headstrong and indomitable warriorPart 6: Helen of Troy is now a headstrong and indomitable warrior, Examiner.com

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