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Lies We Sing to the Sea by Sarah Underwood

Don’t let the average rating on Goodreads fool you. Lies We Sing to the Sea by Sarah Underwood is a stunning story. It is not a retelling of The Odyssey, as these GR reviews would have you think, and there is nothing wrong with the fact that Ms. Underwood did not read The Odyssey in its entirety. Instead, Ms. Underwood takes one very minor character from The Odyssey, whose arc one can understand in two sentences, and imagines an entire future for her, creating her own mythological story. As a debut novel, what Ms. Underwood accomplishes is impressive, and Lies We Sing to the Sea is a beautiful story.

The moment we meet Leto, as a servant dresses her for her impending death by hanging, we know that Lies We Sing to the Sea will not be an easy story to experience. Leto is so full of anger and grief that her scenes are heartbreaking. Even after she meets and falls in love with Melantho, Leto’s past continues to rule her emotions, as well as they should. Some experiences are difficult to forget or forgive, and being hanged is one of them.

At the same time, Leto has a fragility that melts your heart and allows you to forgive her thirst for vengeance. Leto reminds you of what it feels like to be utterly alone, with no one to watch your back or help you when you desperately need it. Her need for Melantho and her attraction to Mathias stems from that need for human connection, which had been missing from her life. This fragility and her other strong emotions draw you to her as a character. She is an underdog in every sense of the word, and there is nothing you want more than for her to get everything her heart desires.

At the heart of Lies We Sing to the Sea is the yearly ritual killing of twelve girls. Ms. Underwood uses Mathias to look at the classic conundrum of whether you kill one, or in this case twelve, to save the many. There is a reason sociologists continue to use this scenario to research humankind; a person’s answer tells so much about their values and their sense of moral obligation. Everyone likes to think they would not let anyone die, but rarely is the answer as simple as that. The answer becomes decidedly more complicated when discussing a deal involving one of the major Greek gods. After all, Mathias has proof that ignoring the ritual means disaster for his people.

Ms. Underwood’s solution to Mathias’ (and Leto’s and Melantho’s) problem is as elegant as it is correct. Her solution, the action Leto must take to end the ritual killing of twelve females every year, balances the scales Odysseus threw out of balance when he killed Penelope’s original twelve maidens. While it doesn’t make what Leto must do any more manageable, there is poetic justice in the necessary action that is satisfying.

One of the more spectacular elements of Lies We Sing to the Sea is Ms. Underwood’s deep dive into ancient Ithaca. In many ways, she brings Ithaca to life in a way that puts all other Greek stories to shame. Moreover, we don’t see one aspect of life in Ithaca. We learn what living in the palace among royalty was like and what it meant to toil outside the palace gates. Ms. Underwood presents as thorough a picture as one could imagine, and her story is the better for it.

Lies We Sing to the Sea is a thoughtful, engaging, and stellar novel that deserves to be on everyone’s radar. It is not another myth retelling. Ms. Underwood goes beyond that to create a vibrant world in which everything from the people to their problems to the solutions is as complex as it would be if it were a true story. The glimpses of magic and godlike powers enhance this already magical story. All three main characters, Leto especially, play on your sympathies and earn their way into your heart. Sarah Underwood’s debut novel is most impressive, and she is an author we will all want to keep our eye on in the future.

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