Book Review: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint – an enthralling read based on Greek mythology

Since Madeline Miller’s hugely successful novel, The Song of Achilles, published in 2011, fiction based on ancient myths, has been popping up, almost spawning a whole new genre. Miller continues to write terrific books like this – I can’t recommend Circe enough – and acclaimed author Pat Barker has veered away from her 20th century war fiction to produce two novels (so far) about the women of Troy. Ariadne is the first novel by Greek myth enthusiast, Jennifer Saint. 

I have long been fascinated by the story of the Minotaur and how Theseus defeated it with the help of King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne. If you recall, the Minotaur was a monster, half bull and half human, with a voracious appetite for human flesh, sequestered in a labyrinth devised by Daedalus, a kind of Leonardo of his day. In the novel, Minos, King of Crete, was becoming unpopular with his people for feeding miscreants to the beast, but happily found another food supply: a tribute from Athens, which Minos had brought to its knees in battle. 

So every year, seven young men and seven young women, teenagers really, would be shipped from Athens then flung into the labyrinth for the Minotaur to hunt down in the dark and well, you can imagine the rest. Theseus, long estranged from his father, the King of Athens, returns to find his city in mourning for the new harvest about to take place and volunteers as one of the selected victims. He’s keen on vanquishing monsters and thinks he can outwit the Minotaur, if only he can find his way in and out of the labyrinth. Ariadne, drawn by his princely bearing and general good looks, offers to help.

Such an exciting story, but that is barely the half of it. Jennifer Saint weaves a yarn around Ariadne and what happens next. How Theseus left her on the island of Naxos, instead of taking her back to Athens as his bride. It is also the story of Phaedra, Ariadne’s thirteen year old sister, similarly smitten with Theseus. While Ariadne is rescued by Dionysus, the god of wine and good times, Phaedra becomes a bargaining chip between the kingdom of Crete and Athens.

The women in this story are rarely able to steer the path of their own lives, caught up in the political aims of the powerful men around them. So even though Ariadne and Phaedra are the grandchildren of the sun god Helios, and as such have remarkable beauty, they are victims of circumstances again and again. Meanwhile the gods, particularly Zeus, and his bitter and jealous wife Hera, toy with the mortals of the story, and even lesser gods like Dionysus.

The gods do not know love, because they cannot imagine an end to anything they enjoy. Their passions do not burn brightly as a mortal’s passions do, because they can have whatever they desire for the rest of eternity. How could they cherish or treasure anything? Nothing to them is more than a passing amusement, and when they have done with it, there will be another.

It all makes for a gripping retelling of the myth, adding character to the main players – the motives and desires, weaknesses and blindness to the truth. In other novels, you often shout at the characters, ‘Oh, no! Don’t do that!’ Or even ‘Look out, behind you!’ But here, it wouldn’t matter how aware the characters were, the gods are always out to get them, pawns in their constant one-upmanship with other gods.

While there is much tragedy to the story, the novel is still very entertaining, creating an imaginary world that is a joy to the senses, whether it is Dionysus’s island with its maenads and feasts, or the opulent world of the palaces in Crete or Athens. We even get a chance to check out Hades.

Ariadne is well worth picking up, a welcome addition to a growing sub-genre of mythical retellings, with four out of five stars from me. Saint’s second book, Elektra is definitely on my must-read list. Another book by Saint, Atalanta, is due for release later this year, while I’ve also got my eye on Ithaca by Claire North. So much to enjoy.