I had to do a fair bit of pondering before I set out to write this essay, which kept it from happening as quickly as I would’ve liked. There were a number of reasons for this, some of which were circumstantial–the holidays, other stuff–and some of which boiled down to wrapping my head around what to say and how to say it.
The Flame in the Maze is Caitlin Sweet’s sequel to 2014’s The Door in the Mountain from Chizine Publications ChiTeen imprint. Taken together, the two novels are a retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, starting around the time the latter is born and wrapping up, as the myths do, with Theseus sailing away from certain death in gory masculine triumph.
The broad strokes of the story follow those of the myth, so I’m going to be spoilery in a very particular way, in that I’ll assume that you know those strokes. That there’s an inescapable maze, for example, built by Daedalus, and a girl named Ariadne who tells Theseus how to hack the labyrinth so he can slaughter its resident monster and get out.
Sweet’s beautifully nuanced retelling centers around some arguably lucky individuals who are blessed by the gods–godmarked, the Minoans and Greeks call it–and, occasionally, are even born to them. Daedalus’s miraculously crafty hands are a gift from on high, for example, as are the bird-like characteristics of his son, Icarus. Theseus, meanwhile, is a bit of a telepath.
The first book is largely the tale of Ariadne… it has an ensemble cast, but its story is driven by her. Gorgeous, an accomplished dancer, a bona fide princess and malicious to her rotten core, Ariadne is consumed by jealousy for her godmarked sisters and brothers. She’s got a little sister who can open any lock, for one thing. The real focus of her rage, though, is her little brother Asterion, who transforms into a fusion of boy and bull whenever he is exposed to extreme heat.
In The Door in the Mountain, Ariadne plays upon her father’s significant personality defects and convinces him to build the labyrinth of myth as a prison for her brother. She maneuvers him into demanding Athenian sacrifices to Asterion and has the satisfaction not only of seeing her brother imprisoned but of forcing him onto a diet of soylent green and paltry temple offerings.
But although she seems to have pulled off the perfect villainous plan, the cracks are already setting in. A slave girl, Chara, who loves Asterion, has slipped herself in with the latest batch of sacrifices to see if she can save him. And although Ariadne has enlisted the prince Theseus to assassinate her brother, it turns out he’s just not the sort a fellow a girl can trust.
There’s also the minor issue of her father’s eroding mental health. He’s got some ideas whose realization might result in something truly apocalyptic.
The Flame in the Maze reads a little like a time travel novel when it picks up the action from The Door in the Mountain. This illusion prevails due to the fact that the story really gets underway once Theseus is in the maze… but the various character threads require Sweet to bring us up-to-date with people who’ve been trapped in the Labyrinth, and elsewhere, for years. (I love time travel of all sorts, so this section is a little like ravishing a box of bonbons.)
Icarus and his father Daedalus, for example, were locked up by King Minos, not in the Labyrinth but in an isolated cavern elsewhere, with nobody but each other for company. We get to see how they coped. And each set of Athenian sacrifices, the ones tossed into the Labyrinth at two year intervals and presumed dead at Asterion’s horns, has met a slightly different awful fate from the previous cohort.
The story loops back to catch each thread, until the reader and everyone else is, more or less, finally in the same moment. By then, escaping Crete entirely is the only thing any of the characters can hope to do, for there is no stopping the king from achieving his world-shattering plans.
Though Ariadne sowed almost all of the seeds of the story in the first novel, she is very nearly an afterthought in the second. She’s reaping a whirlwind of her own construction, and it’s too powerful for her–for any of them–to dial down. Understandably, nobody is deceived by her anymore. Still, I missed her scheming in this second book. She is the true monster of the story, after all, and even though her brother becomes genuinely fearsome over the course of his imprisonment, it is interesting to compare them, the calculating master villain on the one hand, the helpless prisoner to magical appetite on the other.
Sweet’s take on the familiar myth is true enough to make the story recognizable, and yet its points of difference are numerous and–no surprise, if you know this author’s work–heartbreaking. There are plenty of surprises, and they all feel just right. Of these, the most poignant is the fate of Icarus. Everything that happened to him absolutely wrecked me.
I also came out of the first book shipping Asterion and Chara, and their ultimate fate makes perfect sense. (Other readers will be happy with it too, I think. I hope.)
Different versions of the original myth disagree on whether Ariadne was deliberately abandoned by Theseus on Naxos or if she slept in and was left behind by mistake. Her fate is the final mystery of this book, the last piece of a puzzle as intricate as the Labyrinth itself, and it slides into place with the sureness of a well-wrought lock clicking shut. Perhaps the greatest success of The Flame in the Maze is that it makes you feel as though you won’t get out of the Labyrinth; its author takes you to one of those fictional places you carry ever after, a combination of scar and badge of honor, and a chamber of horrors occasionally–very occasionally–illuminated by its best characters’ moments of humanity and compassion.
Author’s note: Caitlin Sweet is a friend of mine, and that gets one a friendly reading. I can’t claim strict impartiality–though, really, I’m never impartial where books are concerned. If I finished it, I loved it. I will also tell you for free that Sweet did an interview for my The Heroine Question, and you can read that here.
Brit McGinnis is an author and freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She works in social media consulting and as the editor in chief of Fangirls Read It First. Her coverage of film and insider views of horror culture earned her the nickname of the Princess of Dread. Brit’s next nonfiction project is a memoir called “Film School Was Too Expensive.” Her next fiction project will involve ancient gods and skydiving.
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
I absolutely imprinted on Sorcha, the lead heroine of Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. Most of my early adolescence was spent re-reading that book! Other than that, the main heroine of my childhood was Belle from Beauty and the Beast. So many bookworm role models, so little time.
What was it Sorcha did–what qualities did she have that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
Sorcha was such a beautiful role model because she is both conflicted and committed. She is given a mission from the Queen of the Fairies and she leans into it. She knows what she has to do and is willing to do it. But she’s also emotionally conflicted about her mission and all the people that she comes across because of it. She is very brave and very strong. But she doesn’t see her emotions as detracting from that strength.
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your creations owe her?
Sorcha’s definitely the ancestor of most of my heroines. She is defiant when it makes sense for her to be, and acknowledges her own limitations. Just like Andy (the heroine of Maskheads), she longs for the simplicity of childhood and the simplicity that comes with that. Both of these ladies are fueled by (and are also magnetic to others) because of their single-mindedness. That’s also going to show up in later works, which I can’t talk about yet.
Mika from my first book (Romancing Brimstone
) is a bit more complicated, because she is emotional in a way that Andy certainly is not. I see her as a rebellion against the idea of Belle, or perhaps an honest portrayal of the frustration that maybe would have resulted from a Beauty and the Beast
type of arrangement in real life. She grows from passive to passionate, unafraid to express her anger and doubt her reasons for running away from her old life.
Bonus round: How do you feel about the word heroine? In these posts, I am specifically looking for authors’ female influences, whether those women they looked up to were other writers or Anne of Green Gables. Does the word heroine have a purpose that isn’t served by equally well by hero?
I love the word heroine because it suggests that women can be heroic without feeling that they have to be like men to do so. When I think of heroines, I think of both Xena and Scarlett O’Hara. They can be both strong and war-like or endlessly steadfast scrappers, but they are heroic in their own unique ways. I don’t like the idea of women only being seen as heroic if they are warriors. Not that female warriors shouldn’t exist, but I think a more nuanced definition serves everyone better.
About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Clicking the link will allow you to browse all the other interviews, with awesome people like Linda Nagata, Kay Kenyon, and Louise Marley. If you prefer something more in the way of an actual index, it’s here.
My 2015 books read list is embarrassingly short, in part because I reread quite a few things, in part because I tanked out of a lot of things. This does mean that if it’s on here, it was quite a good book. I also read a stonking pile of short fiction but was miserable at capturing the individual stories. Here’s the list of novels:
1. Hilary Davidson, The Damage Done
2. Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
3. Melanie Tem, The Yellow Wood
4. Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
5. Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (reread)
6. L.R. Lam, False Hearts (advance copy)
7. Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black
8. Tana French, Faithful Place (reread)
9. Eric Larsen, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
10. Robert Wiersema, Black Feathers
11. Tana French, The Secret Place (reread)
12. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (reread)
13. Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (reread)
14. S.M. Stirling, The Desert and the Blade: A Novel of the Change
15. Fran Wilde, Updraft
16. Daisy Hay, Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives
17. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly (advance copy)
18. Minette Walters, The Shape of Snakes (reread)
19. The Last Witness, by K. J. Parker
20. The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves The World Again, by A.C. Wise
21. Experimental Film, by Gemma Files
22. The Flame in the Maze, by Caitlin Sweet
23. Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Fiction, edited by Sandra Kasturi and Jerome Stuart
“The Glass Galago”
On Wednesday the third of the Gales, “The Glass Galago,” will be launching at Tor.com. (The first two Gales are “Among the Silvering Herd” and “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”.) This new story takes Gale Feliachild and Garland Parrish to the Fleet itself. It’s not the first visit for either of them, obviously, but it’s their first time together. Gale learns a little more about what it was that got Garland disgraced and kicked out of the service. I hope you guys like it.
I was offline a fair bit during the holidays: didn’t eschew Facebook or Twitter, by any means, but I definitely spent more of my waking hours away from the computer. When I was working, it was often on fiction. There’s a proposal I’m pulling together for what might be my next ecofantasy novel; its working title is Tom the Liar, largely because in my head the main character shares some traits with the Hiddleston Loki. My editors have also sent some notes back on The Nature of a Pirate, so I’m keen to buckle down to revisions. I worked on setting up a spring book tour, and should be announcing dates soon. I thought about some teaching stuff and tried mightily to finish reading David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, but didn’t quite get that done before the new year.
The holidays themselves were low-key and pleasant. There was some sleeping in, some feasting, some wonderful time spent with friends. And now it’s snowing in Toronto, and 2016 has come, and I am looking forward to a year filled with wonders and surprises.
photo by Kelly Robson
One of my irrational peeves about pop culture is the way writer homes are sometimes depicted as vast, cool, expansive spaces, with tons of square footage and twenty-foot high ceilings with massive amounts of natural light and floor to attic bookcases on the walls. This doesn’t bother me about Castle, however, because Nathan Fillion’s character is portrayed as having come from money in the first place and being extraordinarily successful in the second, but when the fictional writer in question isn’t a New York Times bestselling born-with-a-silver-spoon personality, it irks.
Having said that, my little condo doesn’t much look like a set designer went nuts on the premises, but it does have an extraordinary number of luxuries attached to it.
The hot tub you’ve all probably heard about, and like most of these places, there’s a gym, communal barbecues, and an event room. The real perk is the location: we’re five minutes from the subway and smack in the midst of cultural treasures like the AGO, the TiFF Bell Lightbox, City Halls new and old, and all the theaters.
One of the things I probably don’t mention all that often is that my marvelous well-located building also has a library, complete with a random scattering of books, WiFi that mostly does work, and a TV and faux fireplace that–as far as I can tell–aren’t plugged into anything.
It’s big, spacious, quiet, and frequently empty, and it has a couple of workstations as well as the lounging chairs pictured here. There’s a window along one wall which lets in the light of day. It’s where I go to clear my head when I need to get away from home, cats and distractions, but can’t or don’t want to go all the way out to a coffee shop.
I’m sitting here as I write these words, sifting through projects and priorities for the coming month, with Of Montreal’s Sunlandic Twins playing via a portable Bluetooth speaker and a view of gray and rainy clouds.
I suspect and hope that 2016 is going to be an extraordinary year, filled both with wonders and opportunities. This little bit of quiet, at the stub end of the year, is all about gearing up and getting ready.