Published: 30th March 2021
Genre: Mythological Fiction
Trigger warnings: Animal sacrifice, allusions to rape, suicide
As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.
When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.
In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?
The story of Ariadne is a bittersweet one in which divine prosperity is tinged with fateful tragedy, and this retelling encapsulates all of it in stunningly absorbing fashion. With engaging writing throughout and a fantastic use of dual perspectives, it stays true to the mythology while placing the emphasis squarely on two endlessly fascinating female characters.
We are experiencing of a golden age where the women of Greek myth, humans and deities alike, are being reclaimed by a host of talented authors, and this is a standout addition to the list. The attention to detail is a delight to behold as it mixes some of the more well-known legends with relatively obscure ones, and the quality of the storytelling is such that the book becomes extremely difficult to put down.
Princess Ariadne and her sister Phaedra live on the island of Crete, which is ruled by their despotic father Minos, who keeps renowned inventor Daedalus imprisoned and sacrifices fourteen men and women from Athens every year at the hands of the Minotaur. Housed in a labyrinth beneath the palace, Asterion is Ariadne and Phaedra’s younger brother; a murderous creature born as a punishment to their mother Pasiphae by the sea god Poseidon.
The latest group of would-be victims includes Theseus, the prince of Athens who has volunteered himself with the aim of fulfilling his destiny. Ariadne is betrothed to the unpleasant Cinyras, but is immediately taken by Theseus once they meet and agrees to help him slay the Minotaur and escape Crete to become his wife, thereby defying Minos.
When the deed is done, they leave without Phaedra and arrive on the uninhabited island of Naxos, which belongs to the maverick wine god Dionysus. When Ariadne wakes up the next morning, there is something clearly wrong and she is left fighting for survival, beginning a sequence of events that will transform the lives of herself and Phaedra, and the fates of many of the surrounding kingdoms.
The plot follows the mythological narrative in terms of what takes place, with the key difference being that it is entirely driven by the two female protagonists. Their lives intersect in curious ways and take rollercoaster paths, with the feeling of foreboding rarely far away as the actions of other characters such as Theseus and Dionysus affect them so greatly. All of this is beautifully realised by the author, with countless passages that are thought-provoking and laden with meaning.
Despite Ariadne being the title character, Phaedra is in many ways just as central to the story. It is told from the perspectives of both women, who are equally likeable and captivating, just to add another reason for you to keep reading on. They are empowering in some ways too, but I also admired the fact it does not hide away from certain other things, such as their contrasting reactions to motherhood.
The character development is noticeably impressive as Ariadne begins as naïve and impressionable, before turning into someone more alert who questions the world around her, while still retaining her kindness and idealism. Phaedra is much more courageous and strong willed, with a level of independence that made her easy to root for until her hopeless final mission. Later in the book their timelines do overlap slightly, but after the initial surprise it is fairly simple to follow.
For all the talk of being the hero who defeated the Minotaur, it has to be said that Theseus is a truly vile individual. The honourable person we see at the start is just a veneer as he turns out to be the personification of deceit and toxic self-indulgence. Dionysus is somewhat more complex, often flighty and frivolous and showing himself to be unlike other gods, but through the eyes of Ariadne his faults gradually emerge.
It is occasionally remarked upon in the book how women in Greek myth were so often the ones to be punished by the Olympians for sins committed by men, which makes for a powerful sub-plot. These include what happened to Medusa and the birth of Asterion to an increasingly absent Pasiphae, who receives a much more sympathetic portrayal here than in other adaptions.
The most vivid setting by far is Naxos, which seems barren at first in a way that almost reflects Ariadne’s suffering, before the arrival of Dionysus turns it into a kind of haven where much of the story takes place. The cities and palaces all rather blended into one, although I did really appreciate the detail of how the Minotaur’s labyrinth was described.
Going into this book, it is easy to assume that the writing might not be easy to follow, but in fact the opposite is true and that really helped me connect with the story and the characters more. As well as being engaging, the metaphors used really enhance the emotions they feel, ensuring that the rather sad ending has the desired impact.
Overall, this is just about everything you might look for in a Greek mythology retelling. Beguiling and compulsive, it is told impeccably with strong female characters leading the way among an intriguing cast. It is one of those rare and wonderful books which transports you into its world and by the end, you do not want to leave.
A former English teacher, Jennifer Saint grew up reading Greek mythology and became a bestselling author with Ariadne, which is her debut novel. It was shortlisted for Waterstones Book of the Year in 2021, and it shall be followed by Elektra, which is due to be released in April.
Saint lives in Yorkshire with her husband and two children, and is now a full-time author.
A tremendous book that I honestly never wanted to put down. I was immersed by it, in love with the writing and fascinated by the characters.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐