Mythology is filled with amazing stories, tales that have existed for thousands of years across multiple cultures. Because of this, mythology often gets used as inspiration for other tales. Whether that’s simply taking mythological figures and slapping a new coat of paint on them, such as comic book characters like Thor, or changing things so much that folks don’t even realise it’s a mythological retelling, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey), myths and legends are everywhere in modern storytelling. Inanna by Emily H. Wilson, draws upon an area that most people would probably be less familiar with though: Sumerian mythology.
Inanna tells three interweaving narratives, each drawn from mythological figures and stories. The first of these is the titular one, Inanna. Inanna is the first Anunnaki child born on Earth, a child with the same powers as and abilities as the twelve Anunnaki gods that rule over man. Other Anunnaki have had children whilst ruling on Earth, but these have resulted in demi-gods, and mortal children, making Inanna something special and new. Crowned as the Goddess of Love, she grows up wanting to be friends with other children, not understanding why her being a god means that she can’t. Her parents try to impart lessons about detachment on her, grooming her for her adult role of Goddess. Part of this is them arranging a marriage for her with the demi-god son of another Anunnaki; an arrangement that will change the course of her young life forever.
The second character is Gilgamesh, the great warrior of legend, mortal son of the gods. However, the Gilgamesh we meet here is less of a great hero, and more of a drunken womaniser. It’s his whorish behaviour that gets him in trouble when held captive by King Akka, an enemy in the war he’s fighting in. Forced to flee in the night with the help of his faithful friend, Gilgamesh finds that the favour of the Anunnaki is waning, and that he has one last chance in which to prove himself. Luckily for him, he has the wild warrior Enkidu by his side.
The third narrative focuses on Ninshubar, a powerful and skilled young warrior woman from a distant land. Elected to take over for her father upon his death, an act of kindness on her part brings her mother’s wrath down upon her, and she’s cast out and hunted by her former people. Ninshubar is forced to flee her homeland, and searches out a new place to call home where she might be accepted.
One of the issues that can plague a book based upon mythology is that people can know the source material, and your work will get compared to other adaptations, and be picked apart by folks who think it’s not going the right way. Even I’ve come across stories based upon myths and legends that have failed to excite me because little has surprised me in them. Fortuantely for me, I have practically no familiarity with Sumerian myths, and have only heard of two of the characters featured here in passing (any Trekkie worth their salt will remember the names of Gilgamesh and Enkidu – thanks Jean-Luc). This resulted in a reading experience that felt incredibly fresh and new.
But this isn’t just down to lack of familarity that makes Inanna such an engaging read, Wilson makes these ancient stories feel new thanks to the focus on the characters and their experiences. A lot of mythological stories were focused on the big events, the spectacle, but in Inanna every moment is told through the eyes of one of these characters, and every moment is personal to them. It grounds the events in their experiences, their emotions, and it ends up drawing you in more than you expect. Wilson also does fun and unexpected things, such as introducing the legendary hero Gilgamesh on his back on the ground, being poked in the chest with a spear. He doesn’t rouse himself and beat his foe, but runs away in a very undignified manner. It’s these moments of subversion that help to build out more rounded and believable characters.
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Despite all this praise, the book did take me a while to get into. The beginning felt kind of slow, despite giving the reader a lot of world building and characters. Once I reached a certain part of the book my interest was definitely grabbed and I found that it became a book that was hard to put down; but it took me a while to get there. There are also some parts of the story that are incredibly unsavoury, and I’m quite disappointed that the book (or the advanced copy I read anyway) didn’t include trigger warnings. This may start that ‘you don’t need trigger warnings’ debate, but when a book includes rape, incest, child grooming, and child abuse it should contain some degree of warning as these are incredibly difficult topics that some readers may have had to deal with in their life.
Inanna is an interesting and well written book, one that’s taking ancient stories and making them feel fresh and interesting thanks to the skill of the author. The characters are engaging, and you enjoy spending time with them. Whilst this is the start of a new series (Sumerians) it doesn’t end on too much of a cliffhanger, so you can easily give the first book a try without having to worry about massive unresolved story lines. Definitely worth a read for fantasy and mythology fans.
Inanna is out now from Titan Books.