There are familiar elements - the minotaur, the labyrinth, Icarus, Athens, Crete, Pasiphae, Minos - but the world itself is beautiful and complex and original. See, some of the population are godmarked, and each god gives different gifts. But the fantasy element is there to support the more complex political and religious world, in which Ariadne fights for power as an unmarked princess. She plays political games, bitter that the gods have abandoned her and that her mother fawns over her bastard child, Asterion, a boy who turns into a bull.
He's Poseidon's son, or so she claims, so she truly believes, and so does everyone else. Although she may have simply slept with one of his priests and given birth to a very powerful son. (Icarus, who can sprout feathers and who has talons but cannot fly, is never said to be the son of a god. Either it's specific animals who are important to certain gods, or just as likely it's the fact that Icarus is of Athenian lineage, and thus an outsider in Crete, as well as not being of royal blood that changes things for him.)
Sweet never gives us concrete answers, but it doesn't really matter. Either Asterion is the son of a god, or not, but everyone believes it. It also makes this world a little slippery. I don't have all the answers, but I find I don't care: I loved this story, I loved certain characters, and I loved how full and rich the ones I don't like are. Furthermore, what people believe about Asterion affects this story more than his actual lineage.
Ariadne and Asterion are interesting, because for a large part of the novel, I couldn't tell who was the hero of the story. (Neither, although I can't pinpoint a hero of the story so far. There are good people being manipulated, there are good people who refuse to be manipulated and who are crushed under those with less morals, and there are manipulators. So far, though, no one comes out as a hero as of yet. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, even if there is no clearcut hero in that story either. Looking back, I'm usually miffed at this type of thing. Maybe if the world weren't so complex, the characters to full, or the the story so intriguing, I would have been upset at the lack of a hero.)
Then again, maybe I liked this novel for this fact. These aren't heroes, and for the most part they don't think of themselves in such terms. From king and queen to slave, none of them have a perfect life, or anything close to it, and all of them are presented simply as human beings doing their best to cope with their lot in life. Even Ariadne - who clearly is the villain of the piece now that I've reread the synopsis on the back - wasn't quite evil. She did evil things, but she did so because of the large amount of pressure she felt from her parents: they wanted a godmarked child to take the throne. Her older brother becomes ineligible, Asterion will never be picked as he is despised by Minos, and Ariadne's two other brothers are never considered. She oftentimes feels overlooked, and because of this she learns to manipulate people into watching her, and giving her power. Her life ends up revolving around Machiavellian machinations to keep and even gain power. I hated her for a while, and then felt pity for how sad and empty and meaningless her life was in the end.
Chara, the slavegirl who befriends Asterion, is arguably the most likely candidate for hero. However, she's playing a long game, there's very little action she takes as she waits on her plans to come to fruition, and the ending of this novel is a cliffhanger. I guess she's still the hero, but I have a hard time saying this: for one thing, not a lot of the novel revolved around her, and for another I have yet to see if she'll be successful or has simply thrown her life away.
In the same vein, Icarus won me over. He was my favorite character and he's a dangling thread. However, I suspect I'll learn more about him in the sequel. Now, to order the sequel which I want right now. Right, right now.
I also realize writing this that I've listed a lot of things that seem like flaws, but the truth is, this novel works. It all comes together beautifully, it had lush prose, it was compelling and captivating because despite all the despair some characters lived with, their hope for a better life and selflessness in the face of horrors touched me deeply. I ended up writing the first half of my review in my head as I was reading this, and then abandoned it, as I was swept up in Sweet's vision of Crete.
My hope is that this spawns a series. Sweet has so much more to mine in Greek mythology, and while I'm not always drawn into retellings of these myths - I love the original myths too much to like anything done poorly - I would read so, so much more by this author set in this world. Or she mines this world, the politics, the religious factions, and the characters so well, but it's also a very small part of the world centering on Crete. I would love to see what Sweet would do if she was given carte blanche to expand into other parts of Greece or the world, even.
I'm actually going to go past the bookstore, so I'm going to look for this and order it in if they don't have it later today.