Ariadne by Jennifer Saint – Book Review

Title: Ariadne (review copy)

Author: Jennifer Saint

Genre/Themes/Content Warnings: Greek Mythology, Feminism, Giving Voice to the Silenced, human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, suicide, rape, mild gore, depression

Blurb from Goodreads

A mesmerising retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Perfect for fans of CIRCE, THE SONG OF ACHILLES, and THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS.

As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’ greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.

When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.

In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?

My Review

I’m a big fan of Greek mythology having read it from childhood so was delighted to get approval from NetGalley to read Ariadne.

In Ariadne the focus is on the eponymous character and her younger sister Phaedra, both daughters of King Minos. The story opens on the island of Crete and fills in on the background detail to the familiar tale of the Minotaur in the labyrinth which acts as a catalyst for how the lives of Ariadne and Phaedra unfold over the following years.

The novel is beautifully written; during my read I highlighted many passages that truly moved me with their rich mix of emotional prose and authentic female characterisation.

I found it so interesting to see this interpretation of familiar tales from mythology. I liked how so many of the characters’ background stories were expanded upon from typical 20th century interpretations which particularly trumpeted the feats of male Greek Gods and heroes at the expense of the female characters. This novel certainly sits happily alongside recent Greek retellings focusing on silenced and/or vilified Greek female figures such as Circe and A Thousand Ships.

Ariadne proved to be a compelling main character. I thought that she went on a great journey of personal growth that wasn’t always linear which to me made her feel incredibly authentic. Her combination of human frailties and strengths just shone through the pages making for a read that always kept me hooked. At times she could be extremely an passive character and just seemed to let things happen to her, and at others she found this great fire within her to battle what she perceived to be injustices against the feminine even at the expense of her own heart’s desires.

***Spoilers for the plot surrounding the story of Phaedra***

I was particularly keen to see how the novel would approach the storyline of Phaedra who is typically thought of as a villain. If you are familiar with Greek mythology you will know that she in many accounts of Greek mythology she is the character who accused her stepson of rape in a suicide note after he spurned her advances leading to his death at his father’s hands. It has always deeply troubled me that a famed story in Greek mythology gives credence to the idea that false rape accusations are a common occurrence by women who are somehow trying to protect their own guilt. Especially when in Greek mythology women are casually raped by esteemed Greek Gods and heroes but are described in such sanitised fashion.

In this book Phaedra’s story is brilliantly outlined from the earliest moments of her childhood through adulthood. We are treated to intimate descriptions of this woman and her thought processes, and can deeply empathise with all the struggles she goes through. So much so that once Phaedra’s stepson made his appearance in the novel I abandoned it for a number of days.

Not because I disliked the book or had lost interest. But because I liked her. I felt I understood her. And I was scared of how the novel would deal with the rape allegation.

I didn’t want to empathise with a character capable of such reprehensible actions. I don’t wish to give away the details of the complete plot in this retelling. But what I will say is that it made perfect sense. It gave Phaedra’s story the detail and insight it needed.

***End of spoilers for the plot surrounding the story of Phaedra***

If I am to level any criticism at this novel it is that I think it needed a little more nuance and dynamism in the characterisations of its male leads, Theseus and Dionysus. Sometimes I felt the novel was very heavy handed with its descriptions of the negative aspects of these characters. Don’t get me wrong, they deserved to be described as they were… but I felt the book lacked a little in showing us why they were able to charm so many people into following and revering them. In my opinion, the author wanted us to firmly root against them and their patriarchal privilege, which meant that as characters they lost some of the charisma they needed to truly feel luminous within the storyline.

I also found the final section of the book (it is split into four parts) to be a little rushed. The book still had a satisfactory ending that will satiate readers, but I thought there should have been a little more time taken to buildup to the ultimate endpoint for all of these characters. For me it just lacked the emotion and heart of the previous four sections.

Overall I definitely recommend this book.

It is an engaging read with rich female characterisations and a compelling story that will keep you eager to keep reading.

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*

Publishing 29th April 2021, Headline

Other Works by Jennifer Saint I’ve Reviewed

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8 thoughts on “Ariadne by Jennifer Saint – Book Review

  1. I loved this book; like you said the writing was so beautifully lyrical and easy to get lost within. I don’t remember having an issue with how Dionysus was written but Theseus I certainly agree about. I couldn’t see why everyone was so dazzled by him. How swiftly Ariadne fell for him was my one real struggle with this story. But then, as a retelling, I guess the author has to go with the original to some extent. I just wish he’d came across as more charming and layered. Other than that I adored this novel though and can’t wait for the authors next Greek retelling to come out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, Emer! I’ve been seeing proofs of this one all over the place and it sounds so interesting, but I have to admit I’m feeling a bit oversaturated in Greek mythology retellings at this point. I am very excited to finally cross A Thousand Ships off my TBR this year (I’m determined!) but I don’t think I’ll be trying this one for a while yet.


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