Review: Stealing Athena, by Karen Essex

I liked this book!

Sometimes I feel like my reviews would be more efficacious if they were limited to sentences like the above. I’ll be the first to admit that I usually don’t have the attention span to read long reviews. So, if you’re tempted to stop reading now, just leave with this point: Stealing Athena is good and you should read it.

There. Now to the meat of the thing.

Title: Stealing Athena
Author: Karen Essex
First published: 2008
This edition: 2008 (First)
ISBN: 9780385519717

Stealing Athena tells two stories, which rarely converge but always inform the one upon the other. The main story is that of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, the wife of Lord Elgin (yes, the one responsible for bringing these marbles to England). The second story is that of Aspasia, Athenian female philosopher and Pericles’s favourite courtesan. Interestingly, the two stories are told in different narrative voices: Mary’s story is related in the third-person, while Aspasia tells her own story in the first. It’s a nice touch, and besides helping to keep the stories differentiated, it contrasts the two characters: Mary lets people (well, men) largely decide things for her, and Aspasia aspires to control her own destiny. The way their respective stories are told is fitting.

As to the timing, Mary’s story begins with her newlywed journey to Constantinople, in 1799. It ends in London in 1816. Aspasia’s story begins in “the fourth year of the Thirty-Year Truce with Sparta” and ends in “the first years of the war with Sparta”. Both time periods are well treated and I think that both could have sustained full-length novels on their own.

Here’s the official blurb (link above):

At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the 21-year-old newly wedded Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, a Scottish heiress and celebrated beauty, enchanted the power brokers of the Ottoman Empire, using her charms to obtain their permission for her husband’s audacious plan to deconstruct the Parthenon and bring its magnificent sculptures to England. Two millennia earlier, Aspasia, a female philosopher and courtesan who presided with her lover, the visionary politician Pericles, over Athens’ Golden Age, plied her wits and allure with equal determination, standing with him at the center of vehement opposition to his ambitious plan to construct the most exquisite monuments the world had ever seen.

In parallel stories that resonate hauntingly, Aspasia witnesses the dramatic events that lead to the construction and dedication of the Parthenon, and Mary Nisbet witnesses that same magnificent building’s deconstruction and demise.

Rich in romance and intrigue, greed and glory, Stealing Athena is an enthralling work of historical fiction and a window into the intimate lives of some of history’s most influential and fascinating women.

It’s a neat book. I’m a huge sucker for historical novels, and Stealing Athena delivers what it promises: romance, intrigue, audacity, greed — with a lot of not-quite-subtle feminist themes thrown in to boot. And although I’ve seen the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, I didn’t know a lot about them before I began, except that they’re controversial. Now I know why! And while, yes, this is a fictional account of the removal of the marbles from Greece, Karen Essex does provide a “Fates of Our Characters” section, as well as “Author’s Notes,” that explain the historical fate of the real characters and point in several good directions for further reading.

Are there any problems with this text? Dude, there are problems with every text. I thought that many of the love scenes, especially in the first chapters, were pretty unnecessary to the story. And because Mary is often pregnant, she is often vomiting. Vomiting for chapter after chapter: it’s a little tiresome. But, these problems are neither huge nor very important, and Stealing Athena is an excellent read regardless.

3 thoughts on “Review: Stealing Athena, by Karen Essex

  1. Hi Christine, I will be offering up your site as an example of book review blogs that I admire for their frankness (tiresome vomitting????) and posting the comment on my blog before I head off for summer adventures.KathleenKathleen Molloy, author – Dining with


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