Review of the Day: Hera by George O’Connor
Aw, phooey. Phooey and also consarn it. George O’Connor is making me break my usual rules about reviewing. Generally speaking, when I review the first book in a series I see no need to go about reviewing the rest of the books. I mean, once you’ve covered the first, you can kick back and assume the rest, right? Plus with all the great new books coming out every single day there’s hardly any reason to go about wasting time on a sequel. That’s where O’Connor throws me for a loop. I reviewed the first book in his Olympians graphic novel series Zeus: King of the Gods last year. That should have been enough, and certainly while I enjoyed the second book in the series (Athena) I didn’t feel it was quite as strong as the first. Slap your hands together you’re done . . . then I had to go and read “Hera”. Aw, man. Not only is it great, I’d argue that it’s the strongest book in the series so far. And considering how fond I was of Zeus, that’s saying something. So now I’m stuck reviewing Hera as well. O’Connor says that Hera is his favorite Olympian. The crazy thing is, by the time you’re done reading this book, she’s kind of your favorite too.
We all know she’s the wife of Zeus, but there are things about the goddess Hera you might not expect. Sure she’s inclined to destroy the lovers and children of her husband’s philandering, but she’s just as likely to turn around again and feed his starving son by another woman. She’ll send a guy like Heracles on twelve impossible missions without cease, yet in doing so she’ll be responsible for his fame and glory. This is the story of Heracles and Hera, his namesake, and the strange relationship the two were drawn into. Our muses aren’t always the people who do us good. Sometimes they’re the people who challenge us.
The thing about Hera is that she has personality. A personality that, when displayed in any other work, can be summed up in one word: shrew. O’Connor says in his Author’s Note that amongst his friends he would jokingly refer to this book as “the Hera Reclamation Project”. Jealous wives make for ideal two-dimensional villains. To give a character like Hera any depth at all, O’Connor has the unenviable job of making his muse savvy from the get go. So he does. This Hera’s no fool and walks into her marriage with Zeus with her eyes wide open. She’s not the only character here granted a little personality, mind you. Heracles too becomes more than just a good looking bodybuilder. The first myth we encounter him in, he must choose between an easy path and a hard one. Kids who reread this passage will later come to understand that it is Hera who gives him this choice, ultimately granting him immortality in the end.
O’Connor’s real strength isn’t necessarily his art (which, don’t get me wrong, is perfectly nice) but rather his ability to take a variety of seemingly disparate myths and weave them together into a cohesive whole. With Hera O’Connor goes even farther than that. To make the book work he becomes an editor of sorts. He finds the Hera myths, weighs them, and determines which ones will support his theme. Ultimately O’Connor decided to examine the relationship between Hera and Heracles to find out the nature of their relationship. In doing so he rescues obscure myths, like the fact that Hera breastfed Heracles as an infant, thereby leading to the creation of the Milky Way. He excises the story of Heracles murdering his own family (a story which, strangely enough, shows up in the far more cartoonish Green myth graphic novel Amazing Greek Myths of Wonders and Blunders) because it doesn’t fit with the book’s storyline. He even locates lesser known myths told by the women of Greece rather than the men, and in doing so gives Hera her place in the world.
You don’t have to have read the other books in the Olympians series to understand what is going on here. Sure, scenes from previous books do appear in the background, but if you know your myths they’ll be evident to you. And if you don’t know your myths the book still reads as smooth as silk. I got through the whole thing before I remembered that O’Connor likes to include a collection of footnotes at the end of each book explaining the many tiny details. So it is that you can learn that the statue of Hera on the mast of the Argonauts’ ship is a nod to the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. Or that the reason Hera laughs inexplicably in one panel is because she knows something that will occur at the end of the book. These notes are a lot of fun, far more so than the usual footnote affairs found in most books for kids.
People have always been fascinated with the Greek gods, in part because they’re just as human as we are. They have their faults, their lusts, their mistakes, and their gross failings. Hera is interesting because her fault is finding fault in the wrong people. Rather than punish Zeus for his philandering, she punishes the innocent victims of his attention. Yet under O’Connor’s hand she also has an undeniable charisma. You suddenly understand what Zeus saw in her, because you see it too. It’s one thing to write a myth book about a character and humanize them. It’s another thing entirely to redeem them.
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from final copy from publisher.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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