I very much enjoyed reading Roberta Gellis’ three previous novelizations of Greek myths and was disappointed when her publisher dropped the series. Thus I was mightily pleased when I heard that Baen, a publisher of fantasy and science fiction, had decided to publish her latest novel. Bull God is Gellis’ interpretation of the tale of the Minotaur.
Before I began this review, I thought I’d better check out the myth upon which the novel is based. The heroine Ariadne was the daughter of Queen Pasiphae and King Minos of Crete. According to legend, she helped the Athenian prince Theseus escape from the magical maze after he slew the dreadful half bull and half man Minotaur. As is often the case in myths, her ultimate fate is somewhat disputed. Some versions insist that she hanged herself after Theseus’ love cooled; others that she was left on the island of Naxos either to die or to marry the wine goddess, Dionysus; still another has her dying of childbirth on Cyprus.
Since Gellis is, at heart, a romance novelist, even if she has been forced to find publishers for her most recent books outside the genre, only one of the above fates can serve. Ariadne must marry Dionysus. It is how Gellis gets her heroine and hero to this happy ending that makes this book memorable.
For those who have not read any of Gellis’ previous myth-based books, perhaps a few words of explanation are needed. Unlike Mary Renault and other authors who used the Greek myths but provided rational explanations for the mysterious happenings and superhuman beings that are the essence of these mythical tales, Gellis creates a fantastic
world of magic. The Olympian gods are not true deities, but are rather powerful mages who differ from human beings in their longevity (if not immortal, they live for eons rather than years) and in their ability to cast spells. In all else, they are much like human beings, which is as good an explanation for all the doings on Mt. Olympus.
The mages use their powers to overawe the “natives” and to gain from them tribute. The “natives” build altars and shrines to these “gods” and worship them. The “gods” themselves recognize that there is another, still more awe-inspiring than they, the Mother. What Gellis has done with great skill is to create a fantastical world where the gods really do walk among humans, where a god’s anger can lead to devastating results, where magic is part of daily life. One can see why a fantasy publisher would be interested in this book.
The story opens with thirteen year old Ariadne undergoing preparations for her consecration as high priestess of the god Dionysus. The death of her grandmother has left the position open, and her mother does not want to assume the duties. The grandmother had not been a particularly successful high priestess. When she had “called” the god to bless the vines, the grapes and the wine, he had not come. But when Ariadne calls, the god appears. Dionysus is at first angered that a child has been made his priestess. (Do I need to tell you how the fertility of the vines was generally guaranteed?) But he is much struck by Ariadne’s gentle power; indeed, in her presence the rages that often engulf him seem to tame and she can help him understand the dreams that trouble his sleep.
But Dionysus’ unexpected appearance angers Ariadne’s ambitious mother, Pasiphae. She had given up her opportunity to consort with a god. So Pasiphae concocts a dangerous scheme. King Minos had asked the god Poseidon to confirm his rule and the god had complied, sending a white bull from the sea. The god had ordered the king to sacrifice the bull, but Minos did not obey. So Pasiphae, with the help of Daidolos, pretends to be a white cow to attract Poseidon so that she may bear a god’s child. When the child is born, it is a monster, half-man and half-bull.
Dionysus warns Ariadne that the babe must be destroyed, but she cannot comply; the child is her half-brother. Indeed, of all the people in the palace, only Ariadne treats the child well; only she has any love or pity for the creature. Everyone else wants to use him for their own purposes, to increase their own power.
Ariadne’s refusal to heed Dionysus’ warning leads to a breach between them, but after two years he returns to her; he needs her warmth and calming influence. But events have been set in train that will lead to tragedy.
This immensely rich retelling of the myth of the Minotaur cannot be compressed into a short review. Gellis is a skilled story teller who offers the reader a tender love story, a tale of betrayal and cruelty, and a world of magic and adventure. This is not a conventional fantasy romance. Indeed, the romantic elements, while clearly
important, are not as strong as in her three previous myth-based books.
Despite this, I believe that any reader who enjoys paranormal romance will enjoy this book. Likewise, I am sure that Roberta Gellis’ many fans will want to read Bull God. They will find that she has not lost her ability to spin a compelling tale. For compelling this book is and I heartily recommend it.