It isn’t true what they say about my brother–that he ate those children. He never did; he didn’t even mean to hurt them. He wept as he held out their broken bodies, his soft brown eyes pleading with me to fix them, the way I always fixed his dolls and toys. [...]
I couldn’t fix the children, of course. They were dead, their heads flopping on their necks, their arms and legs pale and limp. My mother ordered the slaves to take them away and give them a proper burial, and I held my brother as he sobbed over the loss of his playmates. [...]
When the replacement children died as well, my mother said: No more playmates. My brother wailed and roared in his loneliness, deep beneath the palace, until the Minos took pity and said: Just once more. But not children from Krete. The people would stand for it no more, he said.
And so they came in their long ships. (prologue)
Ariadne is She-Who-Will-Be-Goddess, having been born to her mother while had assumed the role of the Goddess and will assume the role when her mother dies. Her brother Asterion is He-Who-Will-Be-Minos, a kind of token king who assists with the rituals where the Goddess promises wealth and prosperity. The problem is that her brother will never be able to perform the necessary duties of the position, having been born with physical and mental deformities. Neighboring communities call him the Minotaur, believing him to be half man and half beast, but Ariadne knows differently. However, she soon finds her loyalties torn between her brother, her village, and her obligations as a new batch of slaves arrive and she struggles to explain her culture to strangers, especially Theseus, the son of the king of Athens.
The most engaging aspect of this book is the unique presentation of the Minotaur myth. Asterion seems to be a cross between the Beast (from Beauty and the Beast) and a highly autistic child. Ariadne’s religion/culture is difficult for Theseus to understand (and I keep using the word unique to describe the whole concept). One woman doesn’t just assume the symbolic role of the Goddess, but every year actually becomes the Goddess in order to promote growth, health, and a good harvest. The rest of the time, the Goddess is separate from the chosen woman, her presence and watchfulness represented by the cycles of the moon. It’s presented as almost like a temporary possession of the person in question. The same can be said for her consort Velchanos, who every year chooses a male body to inhabit for the harvest celebration, during which time the two “deities” consummate their relationship. Then the male is sacrificed by the Minos (similar to a high priest/protector of the Goddess) and the blood will be used to fertilize the fields for the coming year. The first boy and girl who are born to the She-Who-Is-Goddess as a result of the consummation become She-Who-Will-Be-Goddess and He-Who-Will-Be-Minos.
The problem of course arises because Asterion, the Minos-to-be, is completely incapable of fulfilling his duties due to his inability to communicate and his physical limitations. While Ariadne’s initial lack of this realization seems implausible to me, especially considering how involved she is in this culture’s religion and events, it adds political upheaval and tension to the climax of the story. Also adding climax to the story is Theseus’ naivety to the whole blood spilling process, thinking that a pin prick will be enough for this sacrificial society.
Another unique aspect of this book is the way Ariadne’s relationship with Theseus ends. EPILOGUE SPOILER ALERT (highlight the text below if you REALLY want to know):
“Now that I know what love is, I know I felt nothing like that for Theseus. Friendship, yes; gratitude for his kindness to Asterion and for seeing me as a woman and not a goddess in training, yes; but not love. That is something different, and something I hope my friend Theseus will find.” (309-310) It’s interesting to see a character change her idea of her feelings and not get swept away by the gorgeous new stranger (how often have we seen that plot?). Ariadne is a woman who knows what she wants out of society and eventually questions her blind acceptance of a role thrust upon her. She’s a strong female character who doesn’t lose sight of her more feminine qualities.
For readers who are familiar with the fantasy genre, this is some extreme out of the box thinking, and I’m seriously impressed. This wholly original take on a very old story will intrigue fantasy fans and inspire a new way of viewing a well-known and popular myth. What Gregory MaGuire did to Elphaba in Wicked, Tracy Barrett does for the Minotaur and Ariadne in Dark of the Moon. (And with a very cool book cover to boot!)