Dark of the Moon, by Tracy Barrett (Harcourt Children's Books, YA, September 20, 2011), is a re-telling of the story of Ariadne and Theseus. I put Ariadne first on purpose, because she is the center of this telling of the traditional hero-centric story in which Theseus comes to Crete, slays the Minotaur after Ariadne helps him, takes Ariadne away with him, and then ditches her on the island of Naxos.
Barrett's Krete is a place where the goddess of the moon takes human form. Ariadne's mother is the current embodiment of the goddess, a priestess venerated above all others. Minos, generally imagined to be the ruler of Krete, is, in this imagining, simply the brother of the high priestess, whose power comes from her. Ariadne grows up knowing that she herself will some day become the goddess on earth, and so her brother Asterion should likewise become Minos one day.
But Asterion, whose mind is that of a small child, is kept confined below the palace, so that he will not hurt himself and others. Many view him as a monster--he seems to them more a wild animal than a person--but Ariadne still loves him.
Then Theseus arrives in Ariadne's world. And it shatters.
The strength of Barrett's story is in its careful and convincing world-building. The culture of goddess worship on Krete is explained in enough depth to be believable, but Barrett doesn't overburden the reader with too much extraneous detail. Nothing happens that cannot be rationally explained, but still there is a sense of fantastical mystery to the whole story--Ariadne would not be the person she is, and act the way she does, without her belief in the reality of her goddess.
It was fascinating to watch Ariadne navigate the difficult position in which she finds herself, as cultures clash with the arrival of Theseus and her world tumbles around her. She is a believable character, and stays very nicely within the mindset of her own cultural beliefs--the use of the first person makes the train of her thoughts clear. Not at all a modern teenage girl transposed to a foreign setting, but with the universal feelings of any girl facing grief and the collapse of her world (like we all face that, not, but you know what I mean, I hope), with the awareness of the opposite sex fulling entering her mind for the first time.
I wonder what the modern teen reader will make of this--if she will be able to accept Ariadne and her choices, or if she will feel distant from Ariadne, and be frustrated that more is not made of the teen romance angle.
Some of the story is told from the point of view of Theseus, who is introduced just before he discoverers his father is the king of Athens. I was disappointed in Barrett's Theseus--we are told by Theseus' stepfather that Theseus is somehow greater than all the other boys of the village, but I was never convinced by his actions that he was any more than a regular 16-year-old boy, nothing special and not particularly interesting. I didn't mind that in and of itself, because in this story, Ariadne's story, Theseus is not required at all to be a "hero," but I felt the page time devoted to his side of things suffered in consequence.
I'd recommend this one to those who enjoy introspective books--lots happens, but it is the characters thoughts about what is happening, and the decisions they make in consequence, that drives the story! Those looking for zesty romantic fun with the Greek Gods should look elsewhere. This is, however, an obvious choice for those interested in serious reimaginings of how myths began.
And just a quick note on readership age. This is not a book for younger kids. The religion of this Krete is based on the idea that a king is chosen every year, spends three days with the Goddess on earth, and then is killed. The fate of Asterion is dark and sad.
(Review copy received from the publisher)