THE PLOT: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth about Theseus and the Minotaur. Focussing on the female characters, the novel depicts the relationship between Ariadne and Phaedra – the two princesses of Crete who live in the shadow of their monstrous brother. When Theseus turns up as a sacrifice to the beast both sisters fall in love with the handsome Athenian hero. But will helping Theseus mean betraying their family? And what happens to them after the Minotaur is slain?
RATING: Ooooh, you know me… I believe the oldest stories are the best, so this has got to be four stars. Maybe it’s not the most accomplished storytelling or even the best ancient adaptation, but it had the ‘read me’ factor that I love in a novel. Like binge-watching Netflix, I kept thinking ‘just one more chapter’ as I didn’t want to put it down. This novel successfully weaves together several poems and plays, myths and mentions of the sisters from ancient texts into a complete and compelling narrative about their lives.
GOOD BITS: The best mythical retellings take the fantastical and make it human. Like Aristotle, I believe focussing on the characters tells us universal truths about human nature. Although many of the plot points in this novel are the stuff of gruesome fantasy, I loved that this is a book about why characters act the way they do. In particular, Phaedra and Theseus were very interesting; although they are not wholly likeable, they are wholly understandable. For example, Theseus’ concern about his image as a hero and desire to tell his own story informs all of his actions.
Here’s a quote which illustrates this:
“And so I came to hear the story of Theseus. His name would echo down the centuries with the likes of Heracles, who paved the way before him, and Achilles who would come after: mighty legends who wrestled lions and razed cities and set the whole world aflame. But I sat with a flesh and blood man that night.’ – Page 68
On another note, I do feel like the novel came into its own in part two because there was more freedom to deviate from the myth and show more conflict in the character’s emotions. For me, this enhanced the idea that their characters were revealed in their actions, rather than diminished it. Plus, I enjoyed the use of language that mirrored the Homeric hymns, such as wine dark waves and rosy fingered dawns
NOT SO GOOD BITS: The first-person past-tense voice left me a bit cold. It made me feel removed from the action, as if I was passively being told a story rather than feeling like part of the action. However, I could look past that and I loved when the novel became reflective about the power of storytelling. I also have a real bugbear about something that’s a massive spoiler, and therefore hard to explain… I felt Phaedra’s storyline was rushed at the end… I just feel like part three had some very convenient and speedy boat trips…. DM me if you’d like to discuss.
OVERALL: As I suspected, if you love “Circe” by Madeleine Miller or “A Thousand Ships” by Natalie Haynes, this is your kind of book. Basically, read this if you love badass women taking centre stage in a typically male story (with a sprinkling of ancient magic-y god-like qualities). However, it could also be suitable if you’re someone who’s sceptical about modern retellings of ancient myths but loves feminist fantasy or dystopia. At its heart, this book is about a strong female hero in an unfamiliar and slightly fantastical world – and how could you not love that!?
Thank you to Headline Books for sending me a #gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.