The story of Persephone is one of the more passionate of the Greek myths. Demeter, the original Tiger Mother, hovers over her daughter Persephone, refusing all offers of marriage. Hades, like many of the Greek male deities, is mightily in love with the beautiful young Persephone. He appeals to her father to recommend a way around Demeter for him. Zeus, Persephone’s father, recommends Hades kidnap and rape her (thanks, dad!).
Hades does just that, dragging Persephone down to the dark depths of his domain. Persephone hates the Underworld and languishes there, refusing to eat any food. Meanwhile, mom hatches a scheme to break her out of hell. But alas! She had eaten a pomegranate (or some pomegranate seeds, there are different variations) ensuring that she must return to the Underworld part of every year. Thus is winter born, as Demeter, goddess of vegetation, mourns the loss of her daughter every year.
In this modern retelling, Nikki Beckett vanished last spring amid a swirl of rumours regarding drug abuse and rehab. She returns, six months later, refusing to speak of where she has been. She is shaky and pale, the very model of someone who has been through a very traumatic experience. And she has. For Nikki has spent the last six months in the Everneath, serving as a donor during the Feed. She knows she must return when the next six months pass and that this time there will be no coming back. She tries to gather the strength to say her goodbyes to those she will forever leave behind, most especially her ex-boyfriend Jack, whose love is what carried her through the dark months in the underworld.
Jack lost himself when he lost Nikki. He went from star quarterback and teen heartthrob to star quarterback and teen heartthrob with issues. He got into fights at school. He formed frantic search parties to comb the surrounding areas for any sign of his girl. He ignored all his friends and spent lunch period with Nikki’s best friend Jules, talking about the old days. Then Nikki comes back. He wants to ignore her but he has loved her forever. Growing closer to Nikki again has more than just an emotional downside though. There is the clear danger of all that is happening around her. Mysterious conversations and events that seem to center around a boy named Cole, the very boy Nikki had been hanging out with last time before she disappeared.
When Nikki survived the first feed intact, Cole was both shocked and awed. Shocked because Nikki should have been a near empty shadow of her former self, aged and on the verge of vanishing into nothingness within the tunnels. Awed because she has come forth a still lovely young women. Yes, she is shaky and pale but she is still herself and whole. Now Cole wants Nikki to join him as an Everliving rather than sacrifice herself to the Tunnels of the Everneath. Those are the only two options for donors who awaken from the feed: The Tunnels or immortality. But Nikki refuses to accept the life of the Everliving. She is horrified by what they do to survive – which is feeding off mortals by sucking people dry of their emotions. There is good reason for Nikki’s horror. The end result for the donor is that they turn from eighteen to eighty, finally disappearing into the Tunnels where they are sucked dry of the last vestige of themselves and turn into ash. Cole sees this as a survival necessity and urges Nikki to reconsider. Together they could make a bid for the throne and rule the underworld. Her refusal to accept his pleas to become his leave Cole desperate. And a desperate Everliving is a dangerous one.
In this rendition of the Persephone story all the passion has been sucked clean. It is as if the story itself fell prey to the emotional draining of an Everliving, leaving just the husk of the original myth behind. By pulling out the key characters of Demeter, Zeus, and Hades, the author changes her rendition into a far different kind of tale.
Nikki and Jack are the lovers in this tale. This was one of the more difficult parts of the story for me because there was nothing epic about the shy girl falling for the star quarterback of the school. Anyone who has seen a movie since the 1950’s has seen some rendition of the girl next door winning out over the popular girl to get the football hero. Heck, just watch a Taylor Swift video and you’ll see the same story in under five minutes. So that love story, which is their love story and a large bulk of the book, left me very cold. It had such a been there, done that feel that it just didn’t come across as the least bit real or touching. And it sure as heck didn’t qualify as epic. I also just didn’t believe in it. Young love can be cute and sweet but it is hard to take seriously, and that is what this author is asking us to do.
The hardest part of this is that Jack and Nikki had a lot of far more interesting things than each other going on in their lives. Nikki’s dad, the town mayor, is running for re-election. Her mother was killed by a drunk driver. There was tension between Nikki and her dad before she left. Jack has a brother in the military and there are issues surrounding that. Instead of using these issues to flesh out her characters, the author sidelines them. Nikki’s dad is relegated to minor bad guy. Just when things are getting heated and a parent should be wondering what is happening to their daughter, there is a scene that makes us realize he is so self-centered the only thing he notices about his daughter is what she is doing to affect his campaign. Nikki’s younger brother makes such a small impact in her life he might as well not exist. Her memories of her mother involve her making pancakes on Sunday morning. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some syrup coated carby goodness, but I sure hope my kids remember more about me than a weekly meal. Jack’s brother could have been cool but didn’t get the chance to shine because the two primaries were so wrapped up in their average teen romance.
That leaves Cole to be cool all on his own. As the villain of the piece I suppose I should have hated him, but the book really only comes alive in his presence – and he is the most fleshed-out of the characters. He is an artist and musician, lead guitarist for a moderately successful band called the Dead Elvises. Cole is constantly in motion, playing guitar, singing, rafting, riding his motorcycle – and plotting to take over the Everneath. He’s also thousands of years old; we catch glimpses of how that has made him who he is and those glimpses are fascinating. Cole also just seems more aware of Nikki. Partly, this is because he can taste her emotions, but he also appears to pay more attention to the actual her than Jack does.
Cole is also no Hades. He didn’t abduct Nikki; he actually warned her away a few times. He’s also just a minor minion in the Underworld, not its king.
Cole is the main thing that saves this story, but also good were the descriptions of the Everliving and their history. Surprisingly this was one of those stories where you hear the “facts” behind the myth and think “That kinda makes sense.” While it took me a while to warm up to the story, the further I got in the more I found myself engrossed. How was Nikki going to avoid her deadline? Could Cole convince her to join him? What had lead to this whole mess in the first place?
This is a good YA offering, and I think many teens would enjoy the story. The YA market has two readerships, though: Those teens drawn to YA stories and adults drawn to outstanding works like The Hunger Games, Twilight or the Harry Potter Series. I just don’t think there is enough here for the second group, although the first group will assuredly find things to love.