Sara Douglass, Hades' Daughter (Tor, 2003)
Greek mythology is filled with heroic exploits, epic quests, terrible monsters, and heartless cruelty. Take the story of King Minos. He angered Poseidon by refusing, at the last minute, to sacrifice a bull promised to the sea-god. In retaliation, Poseidon caused Minos' wife to fall deeply in lust with the bull. God-driven, she mated with the animal, and bore a son with the head of a bull. Minos, unaware that the child wasn't his (and can you imagine that conversation? "It sure didn't come from my side of the family, honey!"), was horribly ashamed and built a labyrinth to hide his "son." Eventually, of course, Minos found a use for the monster. When his other son was killed in Athens, Minos declared war, won, and demanded a yearly tribute of seven young men and seven young women. These unfortunate children were sent into the Labyrinth to feed the Minotaur.
Enter Theseus, great warrior hero and heir to the King of Athens. He volunteers to be part of the sacrifice, confident that he can destroy the minotaur and set Athens free from the domination of Crete. Ariadne, the oldest daughter of King Minos, falls in love with Theseus, helps him kill her monstrous half-brother, and they sail away together, Ariadne happily believing she will be his wife.
Theseus has other ideas. She's been useful, and now it's time to move on. He dumps her on an island in the middle of nowhere and takes off again. Ariadne effectively disappears from the story. Theseus continues adventuring, gaining wealth and praise.
Hades' Daughter picks up where the traditional tale drops poor Ariadne into obscurity. Sara Douglass launches her book with a prologue describing the terrific fight between Theseus and Ariadne as the great hero prepares to abandon his pregnant lover. She threatens him with death, destruction, catastrophe -- the usual cries of a jilted lover, with one twist. Ariadne, in this version of the story, is far more than just the daughter of King Minos. She's High Priestess of the Labyrinth, a sorceress with enough power to make her truly dangerous -- definitely not someone to use and lose.
Theseus leaves Ariadne on the island anyway, not believing her threats. Ariadne, crazed with hate, dying in childbirth, makes a deal with Death for revenge that involves bringing her evil half-brother back to life and destroying the Labyrinth sorcery, called "The Game," that held the minotaur penned for years. The consequences of that bargain -- and the lies involved -- ripple across thousands of years and lives.
The book is divided into a prologue and six major "parts," each part divided further into chapters. The prologue focuses on Ariadne directly, pulling back to a wide focus toward the end to show what happens to the world as her cataclysmic revenge begins. Then, abruptly, Part One shifts to 1939. Frank Bentley is meeting Major Jack Skelton at Waterloo railway station.
I stopped, closed the book, and examined the dust jacket to see if I'd misunderstood what I was reading. Perhaps this was a printer error, combining two different books into one? The only clue on the dust jacket was the ending sentence: "...a complicated contest of wills that could span centuries. . . . " I went back to reading. There wasn't anything to tie the italicized "1939" text into the prologue, and the writing style was noticeably different -- plain, sharp, and fast reading compared to the dramatic prologue. From 1939, the story leaps back to ancient times with "Chapter One: Ninety-eight Years After the Fall of Troy: Cornelia Speaks," a first-person account.
Within a paragraph I hated Cornelia. She's spoiled, weak, and incredibly stupid. "Troy fell when my sixth forefather was a youth, and thus consequently I had only ever known Trojans as slaves." "Thus consequently"? I almost put the book down, but the prologue and premise were so interesting I decided to keep going.
The viewpoint returned to third person after Cornelia's entry and switched rapidly from character to character within the same passage, making it a struggle to empathize with any of the scenes. By the end of "Part One," the bumps smoothed out somewhat and the story was making sense at last. The dominant characters, at that point, were beautifully established and evoked strong -- and, unfortunately, negative -- emotions in me. Genvissa, Ariadne's descendant, is a manipulative, malicious woman bent on accumulating power and trapping Asterion -- her only real obstacle to power -- by reviving the "Game" that Ariadne promised to destroy. (Surprise -- Ariadne lied.) Genvissa's chosen tool is the Trojan warrior-in-exile Brutus, the last man in the world with the training to work the magic of the Labyrinth as Genvissa can. Brutus isn't the kindest man to start with, and Genvissa drags him steadily deeper into evil as the book rolls on, until he's a truly distasteful person.
Cornelia comes back into the picture when Genvissa, posing as the goddess Artemis, manipulates Brutus into taking over Mesopotamia. Brutus, to Genvissa's consternation, forces Cornelia to be his wife. Cornelia, hating Brutus for what he's done to her home, her family, and her, starts composing plots to destroy her new husband even as Genvissa puts together ways to kill Cornelia. Asterion watches from a distance, meddling now and again to prod things along to his own benefit.
Just when I was about to despair of finding a "good" person in the book, the supporting characters emerged, bringing light and hope to the darkest places in the story. Their friendly support finally backlights Cornelia into the shape of a semi-heroine instead of a selfish brat, pointing out clearly that she's only a child, a pawn used by gods and mortals, led by the nose into betrayal after betrayal and routinely abused by her power-hungry husband.
The plot is a complicated net of manipulations, finely drawn and incredibly broad in scope. The flashes of 1939 place events in an interesting long-range perspective, but they would have been much smoother if the first entry had been directly relevant to the preceding prologue. The geography is well described, both in the text and in the hand-lettered sepia maps on the inside cover. Two more maps, just past the credits page, show details of the Veiled Hills and the Isle of Albion regions. The inner maps have Celtic knot compass "roses" of a knight on a prancing horse, which, while well-designed, are jarringly different from the more angular compasses of the inside cover. The knight compasses are also confusing in that "north" is placed below the compass instead of to the "top" as it is on the preceding maps.
Overall, Hades' Daughter, if you can get past the initial rough spots, is a compelling and intricate work well worth following. I look forward to reading the rest of this series.