It’s hard to avoid spoilers here. The story of Ariadne – daughter of King Minos, gatekeeper of the labyrinth, doomed to be locked up on the isle of Crete to care for her brother, the Minotaur – is famous to many a Greek mythology fan, and Jennifer Salt does not deviate far from the main body of the legend.
The story goes that Ariadne was charmed by Theseus, Prince of Athens, who has been captured and brought to sacrifice to the Minotaur. In equipping him and allowing him into the labyrinth, where he slays the Minotaur in the process, she betrays her people. Theseus promises to take her away from Crete with him to become his bride, but instead sails on without her. In some versions of the telling, Ariadne is looked upon with pity by Dionysus, who takes her to the isle of Naxos and makes her his wife, eventually raising her to demigodhood after her death at the hands of Perseus, his mortal half-brother.
Asterion is the minotaur’s name in this Ariadne, and Ariadne is devoted to her brother, faithfully demanding his yearly blood sacrifice – until she falls for Theseus. The usual drama happens – she sacrifices her brother in the name of the true love seems to lie in wait for her. But in Saint’s hands, one can hardly blame the girl as she rages devastated in his wake, abandoned.
Nor can we blame her sister (one of Salt’s few additions to the story), Phaedra, also seduced and carried away by Theseus, who slowly begins to learn what her husband has done during his adventuring. Her dawning horror makes her turn to her stepson Hippolytus, whose rejection drives her to madness, and suicide, while he meets his death via deus ex Poseidon.
This retelling of the tale both simplifies and splits the narrative between Ariadne and Phaedra, and both tales are ultimately equally miserable. If you’re looking for some fun and mischief with the God of Wine, don’t go looking here – you’ll get baby goats ripped to shreds instead.
Salt does not hesitate to blame the men here – Theseus for his obvious perfidy, raping and cheating (he even goes so far as to lie to Phaedra about Ariadne’s death); Dionysus for leaving Ariadne on Naxos to go gamboling and for his cold, angry rivalry with his brother. All of this is true in the original myths – The Gods suck, and women are tossed about in their tumult – it’s a story as old as time, but Salt seems to forget that both female-identified Gods cause havoc and straight retellings, even with a strong narrative voice attached, tend to be boring. It’s strongly implied that sisterhood would be the only salvation either Ariadne or Phaedra could receive, completely ignoring the ending of Ariadne’s traditional myth to go instead with a semi-downer, sisterhood-is-powerful ending. In short: the narrative says that the majority of the men in this book suck.
That’s all well and good, but it’s a narrative I’ve read thousands of times, and at this point a rote retelling doesn’t bring excitement or newness. Only Salt’s engaging, full-blooded prose saved this one for me and keeps it from D territory. Ariadne may satisfy readers who enjoy a soapy Greek myth telling, but if they hunger for new ideas they will not find satisfaction here.
NOTE: This book contains on-page suicide, explicitly depicted, bloody animal slaughter and includes heavy discussion of rape.