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Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier
Review by Juliet McKenna
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781405052054
Date: 07 December 2007 List Price £14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

The magical sequel to Wildwood Dancing -- a beautiful young adult fantasy tale set in the glamorous world of Istanbul.

The new novel from Juliet Marillier, Cybele's Secret is published in hard cover by Tor UK. We're re-running Juliet McKenna's review of Marillier's previous novel Wildwood Dancing in this issue (see below) and Juliet will be reviewing this sequel in our January 2008 issue.

Despite a curiously unpromising beginning to Cybele's Secret, readers who enjoyed Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing, which I reviewed back in our January 2007 issue, should be pleased with this sequel. However, those coming new to this series may be initially hard-pressed to engage with the world and the characters.

Whereas the first novel was set in a remote valley that could have been in any fantasy realm, this tale unfolds in medieval Istanbul. Consequently the opening chapters are heavy with description anchoring the story to the city that nevertheless manages to be oddly generic and fails to convey much sense of place. We're also left adrift in time. There are references to Genoese traders and to distant places like Portugal and England, yet no mention of kings or queens to round out the historical setting. Such omission in Wildwood Dancing was of little concern, since such things had little relevance. However, out in the wider world, this lack of precision jars, not least because the narrator, Paula, is ostensibly a scholar, travelling as clerk and assistant to her merchant father.

He is keen to tell her all manner of other things, just as she notices and explains a great deal more for the reader's benefit. On one level this is justifiable within the context of the tale. On the other hand, given the slew of description in these early chapters and chunks of recapping from the previous story, all this information comes perilously close to a data-dump. As a result, early episodes introducing key characters lack the impact they might otherwise have had, and no clear, distinct voice for Paula emerges until well into the book. Indeed, those who have read Wildwood Dancing may initially struggle to distinguish her from her sister Jena, who told that tale.

This lack-lustre beginning is all the more unfortunate as once the story gets into its stride, it improves with every chapter. Specific descriptions paint vivid scenes while everyday customs and routines subtly create an exotic atmosphere. Individuals become increasingly well rounded as their words and actions reveal their characters and the contradictions within them.

Paula's father Teodor has come to Istanbul to buy an ancient artefact dedicated to the pagan goddess Cybele for a wealthy client. For him, this is purely a matter of business, whatever the rumours of good luck bestowed by the artefact. Paula wonders if this artefact is somehow linked to the Other Kingdom, the faerie realm that she and her sisters visited in Wildwood Dancing. She becomes certain it is when she catches glimpses of her sister Tatiana, who chose to live in the Other Kingdom with her lover. Other clues appear, convincing Paula that the artefact has an importance far beyond its worth in gold. However other folk want to get their hands on Cybele's Secret, and not only merchants. The Muslim authorities are determined to stamp out the rumoured renaissance of this pagan cult and then there's the Portuguese trader, Senhor Duarte da Costa Aguiar. He's rumoured to be a pirate, so how is he mixed up in all this?

Teodor discovers his business partner Salem bin Afazi was killed just before their arrival and no one knows who's responsible. He prudently hires a guard, Stoyan, honest and muscular, if illiterate. The young man is determined to redeem himself as he had worked for the murdered Salem. If he hadn't been called away, the merchant might not have died. Now he protects his dead master's ally and most particularly Paula. Given the culture curtailing women's freedoms, she cannot go out unescorted and even mixing with men in company is awkward. Consequently she and Stoyan become friends despite their considerable differences in upbringing. Senhor Duarte is also determined to engage Paula's affections, flirting outright. But can she trust him when he is her father's rival in the bidding for the Cybele artefact?

Suspecting nought, Paula's grateful for the refuge offered by Irene of Volos's library. In a city where women and men live separate lives, this scholarly beauty has made her house a centre of study and relaxation for intellectually minded females who otherwise lack an outlet for their talents. Irene offers Paula much-needed advice as the merchants' dealings regarding Cybele's artefact become ever more problematic. Suspicion and uncertainty build the tension most satisfactorily. Still more intriguing, Paula's dreams and her discoveries in Irene's library suggest the powers of the Other Kingdom are involved with the artefact. Her sister Tatiana may be engaged on an unseen quest that parallels her own. But when Paula's dreams threaten violence and danger, not even Stoyan's strong arms can reach her.

When the artefact is finally discovered, motives and treachery are revealed all round, deftly stemming from and seamlessly woven into the internal logic of the tale. The revelation of the villain is particularly impressive. Paula's quest now takes her beyond the everyday world to the fringes of the mystical. Unexpected allies and foes each have quests of their own, and she must pick a safe path through the conflicting challenges of their purposes and her own. Here the strength of Juliet Marillier's writing really comes to the fore as elements from myth and fairy tale are expertly woven into the exciting action. The uncompromising callousness of such traditional tales wrings genuine anguish from the now fully realised protagonists. As Paula takes each hard-won step along her path, she learns more about herself and her companions and about the prices they are willing to pay.

Emerging on the other side, our heroine reaches some important conclusions about the nature of wisdom as opposed to learning and a far better understanding of the value of practical as well as intellectual talents. Complementing rather than repeating the underlying ideas of Wildwood Dancing, this subtext runs throughout the book, entirely apt for a young adult novel and giving the tale a satisfying depth for any reader. Most importantly, when the mythic quest is complete, Paula doesn't find herself living happily ever after. Not before she has to handle challenges presented by life and love that no faerie powers can help her with -- and deal with the consequences of mishandling them.

As with Wildwood Dancing, the focus on a youthful female protagonist and her uncertain dealings with first love and betrayal will make Cybele's Secret a book appealing to more girls and women than to boys or men. That's rather a shame, as both books could give each gender some useful insights into the other, especially in those adolescent years when the other half of humanity is such an intriguing mystery. I look forward to seeing what Juliet Marillier has in mind for Stela, the youngest of Jena and Paula's sisters, as the tale concludes with her longing for her own adventure. Ultimately the satisfactions of this book more than outweigh the faltering start.

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