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?
Ariadne gives a voice to the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, and speaks to their strength in the face of angry, petulant Gods. Beautifully written and completely immersive, this is an exceptional debut novel.
Regular readers of Jo’s Book Blog will know that I’m a sucker for retellings of the Greek myths and particularly those that give a voice to the women who are so often key to those narratives and yet overlooked in favour of the heroes and kings (i.e. the men) from those tales.
In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint takes the well-known story of Theseus and the Minotaur, but shifts the focus away from the hero to the daughters of King Minos – Ariadne and Phaedra. Like many readers, I’m aware of the story of Theseus, but going into this novel I could not honestly have claimed to fully understand Ariadne’s part in that mission. And yet, she is central to the story. It’s Ariadne that enables Theseus to slay (pretty sure that’s not a spoiler!) the Minotaur. As ever with these retellings, it’s fantastic to see the women in these narratives get the voice and credit they deserve for the roles they play, and as a reader, it makes for a wonderfully entertaining tale.
Ariadne plays a key part in the killing of the Minotaur, but the novel goes beyond this single event, providing context for the decisions Ariadne makes as well as what becomes of Ariadne and her sister afterwards. And it’s not as simple as Ariadne assisting the hero – it’s a decision that means that she is betraying her father and Crete and it’s a decision that will see her condemned if caught in the aftermath. I thought that Saint provided this context brilliantly – I understood Ariadne’s dilemma and her decision to assist Theseus, despite the risks involved and the potential consequences. I didn’t expect things to be entirely plain sailing afterwards, but the subsequent treatment of Ariadne is galling as promises go unfulfilled and leave Ariadne in a dire situation – it kept me reading as I wanted to know what would happen to her!
As a character, Ariadne is one who evokes sympathy, particularly in what happens after she leaves Crete with Theseus. She seems a little naïve at times, and yet I understood her need to take a gamble and hope for the best – as a woman, she has few choices available to her. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but her decisions do put her in a situation that she would never have anticipated and while it’s tense at times, it’s not all bad. Phaedra’s path takes quite a different route, and I was glad that Saint chose to share her tale as well – I’d have wondered what happened to her otherwise. Despite being the younger of the two, Phaedra is forced to grow up quickly after Ariadne’s escape from Crete, and her hand in marriage is offered as a bargaining tool once she comes of age. Where Ariadne settles for a different kind of life, Phaedra shows herself to intelligent and ambitious, understanding intuitively that as a woman her orders might not be followed if issued directly, but quickly learning how to subtly guide others to her way of thinking. Her life is will not be straightforward either, and the reader wonders if and how these two sisters – initially very close – will ever be reunited.
Through Ariadne, Saint calls out what I think we all realise – that the women in these tales are so often unfairly punished for the transgressions of men and Gods. It’s the elephant in the room in the versions of these tales that have been (until recently) most widely shared, and I love seeing this called out with blame being assigned accordingly. Ariadne does this brilliantly, and it’s a fantastic novel that I recommend whether you know much of her story or not. It’s the perfect novel for fans of Emily Hauser, Natalie, Haynes, and Madelaine Miller. I can’t wait to read Saint’s follow up novel, Elektra – a character that I know slightly more about – which is scheduled for publication in April.