One day I’m reading about cute cupids and cheeky gods and the next I’m on the dark side of that universe. This sapphic retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone sees the young goddess of spring fleeing her overbearing mother’s home after a long-overdue fight over Demeter’s attempts at keeping her daughter by her side forever. Persephone ends up all alone and helpless in a cave far away from home. The perfect place for Queen Hades of the Underworld to pick her up from and bring her to her kingdom, where Persephone is forced to marry her. Besides her reluctant attraction to a goddess she didn’t choose to give herself to, Persephone also struggles with living in the kingdom of death, when her raison d’être is spring, the earth and all that grows on and from it.
The reviews are all over the place for this book and it’s really interesting. For experienced dark fantasy readers, it seems it’s not dark enough. For newbies, like me, it’s plenty dark and I had to prepare myself and accept that what I usually need to enjoy a romance wouldn’t necessarily be there. Once I managed that shift, I really liked this story and the characters. I’m very grateful to Karin for her review of this book, which allowed me to go in knowing what to expect. If you believe in consent (as I do), forget it. This is dark fantasy, with non-consent and dubious consent elements. Even if everything didn’t begin with kidnapping and what amounts, essentially, to rape, when the imbalance of power is such, consent is a mirage. Also, gods are not good people. They take what they want. That Hades seems to believe that what she wants is what’s best for Persephone doesn’t change the fact that, for the longest time, Persephone has no say in what’s happening to her. Her only choice is to fight and suffer or accept and suffer less.
What Persephone endured for centuries at the hand of her mother explains in part her attitude towards Hades. Another glimpse into what drives her can be found in Breathless, a companion short story to this one: “Persephone was still a goddess. She turned toward worship as a daisy turned toward Helios”.
As the author writes on her website, in the content tags for Breathless, “this is fiction not a manual, do not try at home, if someone treats you like this, run”. Before picking up this book, check the content tags the author provides.
Despite everything I wrote above, this is first and foremost a romance. Both characters are a lot more complex than they appear at first. Persephone is just as sweet and gentle as she looks, but she’s also driven and strong, which may come as a surprise even to herself, after centuries of abuse from her mother. Hades is the very definition of tall, dark and dangerous. As the story progresses, her motivations in kidnapping Persephone become less sinister, as does her personality, including her surprising sense of duty. She’s not the monster Persephone first believes she is. Or, rather, she is, but that’s not all she is. Lianyu Tan describes perfectly the conflict of emotions and reactions Hades awakes in Persephone, for example in this excerpt: “Everything about Hades was a contradiction: her cold gaze and warm hands; her hardened heart and tender words. So perhaps it was no surprise that Persephone learned to both dread and hunger for the night, when Hades’ touch would set her body aflame”.
The world this book is set in is fascinating, especially the underworld, where most of the story happens. Since it is told from Persephone’s point of view, we get to experience the darkness of the underworld, the variations in temperatures, all that differs from the overworld through her. The contrast is painful at first but over time, without explicitly noticing, Persephone gets used to her new normal.
The cover is beautiful, the writing is excellent, the narrative is well-paced. The main weakness is the timeline and time skips. Since the characters, for the most part, are gods and goddesses, the story spans over centuries, not years, and I sometimes had a hard time keeping up. Also, the romance itself isn’t as developed as the sexual relationship, and I think had the author delved deeper into that aspect of the relationship, the whole story would have benefited from it. I would have been happy with more magic and special effects too, but that’s just me being greedy.