Robyn Reviews: Ariadne

“I would not let a man who knew the value of nothing make me doubt the value of myself”

‘Ariadne’ is a retelling of the Greek myths of Ariadne and Phaedra, the daughters of King Minos of Crete. It sticks faithfully to the source material, weaving a beautiful – if at times tragic – tale of two women, trying to find a place in a world of men. A highly readable novel, it makes a worthy addition to any mythology fans’ shelves.

Ariadne has grown up in luxury as the Princess of Crete, free to spend her days dancing the halls and weaving her loom. However, her life has two blights – her fearsome father, King Minos, and her even more terrifying half-brother, the Bloodthirsty Minotaur. When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives as one of the Minotaur’s yearly sacrifices, Ariadne is besotted and vows to help – but helping Theseus means betraying her father and Crete, sacrificing the only life she has ever known. Besides, does the woman in the hero’s story ever get a happy ending?

The novel starts with only Ariadne’s perspective,but from part II onwards there are two – Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. Ariadne is by far the stronger character. Sheltered and naive, she’s a sweet girl who wants to do the right thing, but struggles to figure out what that is. As the story progresses, she grows into a more resilient woman, but still one who turns her face away from the truth of the world in order to preserve her happiness. Her internal dilemmas and insights are fascinating, with the dichotomy of powerlessness and privilege.

Phaedra is always harder and shrewder than her sister, never content to sit back and assume a woman’s role. Her relationship with Ariadne is complicated – she loves her sister, but also hates her passivity and naivety. Phaedra is easy to sympathise with, but there’s a cutting edge to her personality which can make her hard to like, and in some ways she’s even more blinkered and naive than her sister.

Most Greek mythology fans are familiar with Ariadne’s role in the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, but this is only a very small part of the book. The rest, chronicling what happens afterwards, is far more interesting. Jennifer Saint paints an engrossing picture of the sisters’ separate yet parallel lives, giving an exceptional sense of place and culture. The narrative is relatively sedately paced yet never feels slow. The subject matter inevitably means this book will be compared to Madeleine Miller’s work, and the combination of the focus on feminism and femininity, a prolonged period set on a secluded island, and the writing style, do make this feel much like Miller’s Circe. However, this is a quieter novel than Miller’s work – still emotional, but more of a gentle sea compared to the emotional storm found at the denouement of Miller’s novels.

Saint chooses to stay completely true to the source material – as far as this is possible for a several millennia old translated myth – and my only quibbles with her novel are mostly unavoidable given this. Ariadne’s infatuation with Theseus is instantaneous and feels unrealistic, but then this is very much how love is portrayed in all the major Greek myths. Theseus can come across as two dimensional, with little character development, but then he’s seen entirely through the eyes of Ariadne and Phaedra, who always view him in a certain light. This is an excellent novel, and these complaints are minor, with very little effect on enjoyment.

Overall, Ariadne is a strong addition to the mythology retelling genre, providing an interesting insight into the lives of Ariadne and Phaedra outside of the famed encounter with the Minotaur. Fans of similar modern retellings such as The Song of Achilles and Circe will likely enjoy this book.

Thanks to Wildfire Books for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Wildfire Books
Hardback: 29th April 2021

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Robyn Reviews: Circe

Those who know me well know that I love mythology – and Greek mythology in particular. I’ve read the Greek myths in many iterations, but this was a delightfully fresh perspective which raised a multitude of ethical questions. There are no heroes or villains here.

For those not familiar with Greek mythology, Circe was a sorceress – or witch. She was the daughter of the titan Helios – who pulled the sun across the sky in his chariot – and his Oceanid nymph wife Perse. Circe’s witchcraft led to her exile on the island of Aiaid, where she most famously was visited by Odysseus on his way back from the Trojan war – she proceeded to turn his entire crew into swine. The novel Circe starts with her early life with Helios, Perse, and her siblings, and chronicles it through the circumstances of her exile and her life on the island. It follows many of the better-known myths around her interactions with mortals – Daedalus, Ariadne, Odysseus, Telemachnus – and immortals, dropping hints before each one is revealed that will delight those who can predict what’s coming.  Miller takes some creative license in her interpretation but each myth is cleverly portrayed and, in many ways, elevated as the characters feel more fleshed out and real.

Circe comes across as childish and petulant but also thoughtful and incredibly self-aware. Her spoilt childhood didn’t prepare her for life as an exile, but it did foster her with a healthy resentment and distrust of other immortals. Her character development throughout the book is excellent and Miller does a great job at giving the reader insight into why Circe might have done everything she did.

My favourite part about Circe is how morally grey everyone is. Many of the characters do terrible things and make dreadful decisions, but they all have reasons and justification. There are no black and white good or bad characters, just those making decisions to best benefit them or their families. These are the complex characters that we need more of in fiction.

This is a slow starter. Being inside the head of the initially spoilt, self-centred Circe is far less interesting than the Circe we see at the end. It’s a book well worth persevering with beyond the first hundred pages – I promise it gets better, and the character arc wouldn’t be as complete without the dragging beginning.

Overall, this is a story about love, about dysfunctional family dynamics, about being different, about learning to love who you are not who others want you to be. It’s a story about morality and mistakes and the grey area between right and wrong. It’s beautifully and clearly written and improves the more you read of it.

Recommended for fans of mythology – including grown up Percy Jackson fans like me – but also for those who just enjoy reading books about complex characters and the area between good and bad.

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 19th April 2018
Paperback: 1st April 2019

Book Review: Weight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Why then did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried? I realise now that the past does not dissolve like a mirage. I realise that the future, though invisible, has weight. We are in the gravitational pull of past and future. It takes huge energy – speed of light power – to break that gravitational pull.”

Each time we tell a story from our lives we tell it anew. Aspects may remain but nuances change. Our present is heavy with all that has gone before and all we aspire to become. We each carry the weight of our individual worlds.

In the introduction to Weight, the author writes

“When I was asked to choose a myth to write about, I realised I had chosen already. The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call had ended.”

Thus we get a retelling of the tale redolent with Winterson’s personal experiences of living under the burden of her upbringing, and the great effort required to be someone who does not meekly follow what is be expected. Atlas’s burden was a punishment for daring to defy the gods. Winterson wished to step out from under the world she had been moulded to inhabit.

“We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable.”

The story opens with an exploration of space and time, the creation of the universe. It introduces Atlas, the offspring of Poseidon and Mother Earth. Atlas was one of the Titans, half man and half god. He resided within the perfection of Atlantis until this was no longer enough.

“Everything that man invents he soon turns to his own destruction. You could have chosen differently. You did not.”

Atlas fought the gods for what he regarded as his freedom. His punishment was to forevermore carry the weight of the world he loved on his shoulders.

The reader is then introduced to Heracles, the Hero of the World. This hero is depicted as unusually strong whilst embodying every weak trait known to man. He is crude and lacks control of his desires and appetites. His part of the story makes for unpleasant reading.

Heracles asks for Atlas’s help, offering a trade that could suit them both. Having got what he requires he tricks Atlas and leaves him with all of time to mull over the lessons learned.

The writing is a mix of the poetic, the profound and the playful. Contemporary elements are woven through to good effect. Heracles’ self-centredness, his ability to quash feelings of guilt over his behaviour, is all too recognisable.

“Every man assumes that what is valuable to himself must be coveted by others.”

I particularly enjoyed the denouement which neatly brought the myth into the modern realm.

Any Cop?: The tale was not as wholly satisfying to read as The Penelopiad, the previous Canon I reviewed, but the layers and musings provide a thoughtful retelling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Penelopiad

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with.”

Penelope, the devoted wife of the glorious Odysseus, waited patiently for two decades on the island of Ithaca for her husband to return home from his part in the defeat of Troy following Paris’ seduction of the already married Helen. Alone on the rocky island Penelope is besieged by suitors, over a hundred of them, eager for her hand in marriage that they may relieve her of the great wealth she acquired as daughter of Icarius of Sparta. She must use all her wiles, and the help of her twelve young maids, to fend off these unwelcome advances.

Or so goes the legend, best known from Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope is portrayed as

“the quintessential faithful wife, a woman known for her intelligence and constancy.”

But The Odyssey is not the only source of this story. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood challenges the inconsistencies in the accepted tale. Here she tells it from Penelope’s point of view interspersed with choruses, which were used in Classical Greek drama, sung or told by the twelve maids who were hanged when Odysseus finally returned.

The story opens in Hades where Penelope wanders amongst the asphodel, and contemplates the legacy of her life on earth. Occasionally she catches glimpses of goings on across the River Styx, offering amusing reflections on modern habits, their shallowness and futility. Penelope has waited patiently as her legend has grown from her husband’s telling of events. Now she wishes to ‘spin a thread of her own’.

She begins with her childhood, the reasons for her antipathy towards her parents. When her marriage is arranged she is content to leave them, although finds Ithaca a lonely place. She feels despised by her mother-in-law, learning more about the customs of the place from her husband’s old nurse. When her child, Telemachus, is born, this nurse takes over his care.

Penelope is satisfied in her marriage to Odysseus until her cousin, the vainglorious Helen, ruins things for her. Odysseus is obliged to fight in the Trojan wars due to an oath made to secure peace amongst the many men who had competed for the hand of the famous beauty, including him. Left alone to wait, Penelope raises the twelve maids as her eyes and ears in an increasingly difficult situation. Their views on events are vividly portrayed in the choruses, with the lightest of touches.

When Odysseus eventually returns Penelope realises that she must tread carefully or will shoulder a portion of the blame, and therefore punishment, for all that has happened on Ithaca in his absence, particularly the dent made in Telemachus’s inheritance. She cannot be seen by her husband to be too aware.

“It’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness”

The writing is acerbic in places but satisfyingly witty. The characters are presented as humane despite their willingness to kill each other with impunity. Given their pedigrees they are suitably god like in their self-absorption and contempt.

Any Cop?: Clever and entertaining, this retelling bridges the gap neatly between ancient and modern, between gods and men. I learned little new of the legend but presenting Penelope as feisty made her more plausible considering the circumstances endured. The question marks left over the veracity of Odysseus’ exploits added to the story’s humour and depth. The maids’ tale is a reminder of behaviours powerful men are permitted to get away with.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Gods of Love

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

When I offered to review The Gods of Love I expected from the synopsis that it wouldn’t be the sort of book I normally read. What tempted me was the promise of the gods from Greek mythology coming to life in a contemporary setting. I was curious to see if the author could pull this off without turning them into superheroes as is done in the Marvel universe. Although the story is somewhat frothy in places, she succeeds in presenting the gods as intriguing, beguiling and suitably dispassionate given the havoc they willingly wreak on their own and the so easily manipulated mortal’s realms over millennia.

The story is told from the point of view of a young and feisty divorce lawyer, Frida McKenzie, who is smugly satisfied with her achievements and eager to further her career. Early in the story she is visited in her office by a stranger, a young man named Dan, who tells her he is an Oracle and that he has seen her in visions. Naturally Frida calls security and has him removed. Ignoring Dan’s advice she keeps an appointment with an all powerful tech company, Neostar, and thus starts her unasked-for adventure. Frida is indeed the chosen one and is required to save the world.

A big, bad tech company that can use its control over harvested data to manipulate user’s lives is an excellent cover for a vindictive god. I was less impressed by the sidekicks he used to do his dirty work. Presented as aliens it was never explained where they came from or why they were needed given there are always plenty of callous and greedy mortals readily available for such tasks.

Thus far the story is all very Matrix. Frida must call upon strengths and skills she did not know she could muster. She receives assistance from unlikely places. She must accept that mythical beings exist, that there are few she can trust, and that most are out to fulfil their own agendas by harnessing her prophesied fate.

In essence then, Frida must recover and destroy a lost arrow before the boss of Neostar can acquire it for his own nefarious ends. In order to achieve this she and Dan work together to find out where the arrow is. Frida must then face trials to retrieve the lost talisman that put her in deadly peril. Her challenging journey brought to mind the adventures Harry Potter and his chums went through, the tales of the Greek gods having inspired many such tales.

The writing style is somewhat tongue in cheek which may be why the perils didn’t come across as quite perilous enough, nor the love interest sufficiently convincing to justify its cost. Each short chapter ended with a cliff-hanger which became a tad tedious but did keep me reading. Frida’s humanity is shown to be a weakness which paves the way for a planned sequel. The plot is one of a supernatural action adventure, perhaps never intended to be taken too seriously

Any Cop?: The aspects that drew me to read the book delivered. The harnessing of the Greek myths worked well in the setting and Frida was a convincing protagonist. The story is a mostly entertaining romp with the gods providing such depth as exists. It provided a light but sufficiently engaging read.

 

Jackie Law