Ariadne flips the legend of Theseus, minotaur-slayer, on its head, focusing instead on the titular Ariadne and her sister, Phaedra. But is this particular odyssey into the well-trodden realm of Greek myth retellings worth the trials ahead? Time to trade in our Dark Horse picks for Dark Pegasus picks and find out, because Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne whisks us away to a cutthroat branch of Greek mythology torn straight from Athena’s olive tree.
Ariadne is the eldest daughter of Minos. Minos rules Crete with sharp words and an iron fist. Oh, and his minotaur son is locked in an underground labyrinth beneath his castle, to which Athens must sacrifice fourteen children each year to pay for past crimes. In the third year of this sacrificial tradition, Theseus, the prince of Athens, joins as one of the sacrifices and plans to slay the minotaur. Ariadne is swept off her feet by the rugged and handsome prince and decides to assist Theseus in his quest by sailing off with him into what she believes will be a life full of romance and heir-making romps in Athens.
If you know the myth, you know Ariadne’s vision doesn’t quite pan out. But I’ll leave the details for you in case you plan to pick this book up. Personally, I found a few elements of Ariadne that resonated with me and others that held me back as I trekked through the maze story.
Jennifer Saint’s prose is as sweet as grapes grown under Dionysus’ watchful eye. Saint has a knack for writing in a tone that feels at home in Ancient Greece. At the same time, her words all feel fresh. It’s an impressive balance, and I noted multiple passages that felt equally at home in a classic myth or a modern tale.
I struggled, though, to sink my reading teeth into this story in a meaningful way. Like the dreaded hydra, whenever I moved past one issue, two more popped up. And while none of these offenses are egregious enough to make me want to fling the book into the River Styx, they do serve as wise cautionary signposts along Ariadne’s journey.
First off, the characters of Ariadne all feel stale and archetypical. Here, Saint seems constrained by the limitations of her chosen medium. When you retell a well-known mythological story, it’s important that certain elements remain consistent with what fans of that story know. In Ariadne, this means that the characters become shallow, one-dimensional beings. Any depth would (and could, and should) plunge them into a different type of story, one where their decisions aren’t clouded by the pre-set plot. In this way, Ariadne feels both linear and stunted. None of the characters make decisions that seem sensible. That’s fine in and of itself, but it leads to superficial archetypes that rarely feature more than a few distinguishing personality traits.
However, for the women of the story–including Ariadne, sister Phaedra, mother Pasiphae, and others–this can be taken as a commentary. The women of Ariadne’s world are nothing to the men, who rule and raid and take whatever they please. Double standards run rampant; Theseus may go on adventures and enjoy the company of whomever he pleases while his wife in Athens is expected to remain faithful. Pasiphae, so damaged by her experience birthing the Minotaur, is rendered a shell of her former self and must live her days out in a mentally ill state. For these characters, the oppression of the times creates a perfect storm of unique characterization. Meanwhile, the men all have secrets, many of them terrible, and they treat their counterparts as expendable.
All this is to say, if you read Ariadne purely for a story, the characters may leave you wanting. But if you read it through a more modern lens, there are interesting tidbits sprinkled throughout. Because there’s a strong commentary in Ariadne, the novel works as a character-driven story, even if those characters, to some, may feel shallow.
The most jarring aspect of Ariadne, for me, was an abrupt perspective shift exactly one-third into the book. The first third features Ariadne exclusively, and she recalls her story in the first person. This continues throughout the book, but Phaedra becomes another first-person POV for the remaining two-thirds of the novel. Phaedra’s story provides much-needed context, but the jump from singular POV to double threw me for a loop. Suddenly, the story bursts into a larger tapestry that requires more careful attention than the first third did.
Overall Ariadne strikes me as a very clear hit-or-miss novel. It won’t capture everyone’s attention, but it’s not meant to. I have never read Circe, The Song Of Achilles, or any other recent Greek myth-inspired novels, but I enjoyed this one enough that it piqued my interest in others. If you approach Ariadne with the right frame of mind, expecting an interesting dive into epic legends with a few key flaws, I think you’ll enjoy it, too.
Rating: Ariadne – 7.0/10