Hades' Daughter Sara Douglass
HarperCollins, December 2002, hc, 624pp, $45.00
Review by Stephen Dedman
Sara Douglass is the author of three bestselling fantasy trilogies, as well as stand-alone novels and historical non-fiction. She was also a lecturer in medieval history at Bendigo University, and brings to her novels a level of detail that makes them not only intriguing, but oddly convincing. Hades' Daughter is the first book in her new four-book series which spans millennia and promises to be as complex as the labyrinths at its heart.
The Troy Game tells the story of a contest between deities and mortals. In the game, cities are protected by magical mazes, from the Great Founding Labyrinth of Crete to the London Underground. Solve the maze, and the city falls; destroy the Game, and release the evil that the mazes have entrapped.
Hades' Daughter opens with Ariadne, who has brought about the fall of Knossos by enabling Theseus to kill the minotaur Asterion and escape from the labyrinth. When Theseus abandons her on Naxos in favour of her younger sister, the vengeful Ariadne makes a dreadful bargain with the Death Crone and the spirit of her half-brother Asterion, becomes the first darkwitch, and causes the Thera explosion. Crete is destroyed, and the golden age of Greek civilisation ends as the gods weaken or die: only Hera remains to try to counter the evil that Ariadne has unleashed.
And that's just the prologue.
A century after the Trojan war, a seductive vision claiming to be the goddess Artemis appears to Brutus, great-grandson of the hero Aeneas and great-great-grandson of the goddess Aphrodite. The ambitious Brutus, who has murdered his own father, is offered a chance to become the ruler of a new Troy. Hera warns Cornelia, a young princess of Mesopotama, that only she can stop Asterion. And in Llangarlia (pre-Celtic Britain), the darkwitch and priestess Genvissa plots to destroy the local gods so that she and Brutus can rule.
With magical assistance, Brutus conquers Mesopotama, trapping and slaughtering their army and murdering the pubescent Cornelia's young boyfriend Melanthus in the process. He then miraculously becomes smitten with Cornelia and forces her father, Pandrasus, to consent to their marriage. Pandrasus also agrees to provide Brutus with a hundred ships to take his Trojans to their new land, but Corneliawho Brutus has raped and impregnatedpersuades him to use these as a trap. Membricus, Brutus's teacher and former lover, becomes convinced that Cornelia is Hades' daughter, and persuades Brutus to kill her as soon as their child is born. Cornelia's plan goes horribly awry after Brutus finds Mesopotama's labyrinth; Brutus spares her for the sake of his unborn child, but Genvissa also believes she should be killed, and uses her magic to try to prevent her reaching Llangarlia alive.
Douglass does a wonderful job of juggling cultures and centuries. Her detailed descriptions of ancient Mediterranean and British mythologies and lifestyle are evocative and convincing, as are the glimpses she gives of 1930s London. Her system of magicthe rituals required and its use as a political toolis one of the most interesting I've read in a fantasy novel (and it manages to explain hopscotch and London Transport). The beginning grabs me instantly, the plotting is intricate and fast-moving, and I was a third of the way through the book before I realised that I didn't like any of the characters.
Cornelia begins as a vain virginal vamp, and uses her charm (ie. her breasts) to provoke two massacres of her own people. Brutus is just as arrogant and self-obsessed, convinced of his demi-godhood; he's also a rapist, but at least when he slaughters people, he does so deliberately. Genvissa and Membricus are mostly motivated by sexual jealousy, while most of the male characters think with their genitalia if at all. The cast seems divided between weak-willed victims and self-obsessed villains; the women despise the men and the men distrust the women, mostly with good cause.
If you like Macchiavellian and labyrinthine plots, with lots of seduction and betrayal, set in an exquisitely crafted fantasy worldand you're prepared to spend a few hours in the company of vicious egomaniacsthis is a great book. Just watch your back while you read it.