REVIEW: Back Across the Styx by Karalynn Lee
“Hades and Persephone have a son, and he’s feeling trapped in the underworld. Bion’s one solace is his friend since childhood, Myrinne, a mortal girl who was adopted by Charon the Ferryman. When Myrinne is kidnapped during a jailbreak from the underworld, Bion’s rescue becomes a chance to experience life in the sunlit lands. He promptly falls in with Spartans who are desperate enough to raise the dead to fight a looming Persian army. But meddling in a war the gods have sworn not to interfere with isn’t likely to put him in Zeus’s good graces — and Bion needs the god’s favor to help Myrinne, who’s turning out to mean even more to him than he realized.”
Dear Ms. Lee,
I grew up reading and reading about Greek mythology. Edith Hamilton’s classic book “Mythology” has sat on my bedside table for over forty years. Reading your delightful novella was just like stepping back in time and re encountering those myths again … but better. It’s full of gods and goddesses, men and monsters, fantastic places and bloody battles where the real and the unreal mingle side by side and are impossible to separate. I only wish I’d read it the month it was released as it would definitely have been a recommended read for February. As it is, it is a recommended read for this year and will probably end up on my Top Ten List for the year.
Novellas and short stories are an art form and often difficult for me to read. Too often something gets sacrificed – either detail or emotion or coherence. Here, it’s perfect. This is a fantastic blend of history and fantasy. It’s got a coherent plot, tight story telling, a logical sequence of events, and descriptions which are condensed to the essence yet still enough to clearly convey the thoughts, emotions and actions of the characters. It is focused but complete in the character and romance arcs.
I like the feisty heroine who has been raised slightly differently – to say the least – from the usual quiet and demure young Greek woman of the day. She’s lived listening to the life stories of the dead as they cross the river Styx. She’s heard a lot more than most women and is eager for adventure and a chance to see the upper world. Her natural curiosity leads her on yet her intelligence keeps her out of trouble. When she’s faced with a difficult and permanent choice, her wisdom, despite her youth, makes her decision a simple and easy one.
Bion is a young god who has witnessed his parents’ arguments for as long as he can remember. Their fights have, in a way, taught him how not to pursue romance and married life. He’s also full of his manly youth and eager to prove himself as worthy of honor and acclaim as the Spartans who stood against the Persians still ravaging the Greek homeland. The battle sequences are enough for the story without getting too gory and manticore is hideous and in keeping with the other beasties of myths. Bion is young enough to sulk a bit when unearned blame is laid on him yet clever and mature enough to turn the situation in his favor when he needs to ask for one last enormous boon from Zeus.
The outcome of the romance is obvious from early on. These two are already well matched in temperament, preferences and desires. It only takes a nudge to get them to break free of the Underworld and taste life and adventure – but always together. Healthy young lust is tempered by care and concern for the other. Neither wants to hamper or coerce the other. Bion desperately wants Myrrine but refuses to pressure her one way or the other. His persuasive speech to the gods speaks volumes of his love for her.
“Even if I didn’t desire Myrrine as my wife, I’d want her in my life. She’s my dearest friend. I wouldn’t have survived growing up in the underworld without her.” He’d thought he wanted the fullness of his powers and freedom from the underworld, believing these things would make others see him as a grown man. But they didn’t matter, not compared to the way Myrinne looked at him: with acceptance and tenderness and joy. He never wanted to lose that.
The family concerns are addressed well enough for me to be as at peace about them as are Myrrine and Bion. The fantasy element is handled well making it seem as natural to the story as it does in ancient myths. The storytelling is seamless and seemingly effortless while the romance is fulfilling to watch unfold. After I read the novella once, I read it a few days later just to be sure it still sparkled as much the second time around. It does. A
I can’t wait to read this. The most read book in our house is the D’Aulaires’ book of Greek Myths followed by their collection of Norse myths. We love good retellings of the ancient stories.
This review made me think of Joanne Harris’s Runemarks, a retelling of Norse mythology. I’m getting ready to read the sequel, Runelight. I’m wondering if anyone has read the second book and how it held up.
Thanks for the great review.
Wow, Jayne, an A from you! I hardly ever read Greek/Roman mythological stories and *I* want to read it. Great review.
OMG, I hate you. SOLD. This sounds wonderful.
@Sunita: You might want to quickly brush up on the Battle of Thermopylae before starting it as that serves as a backdrop for the opening sequence of action in the novella. Hades, Persephone, Zeus and Hermes are the main Greek gods to know about.
@Dabney: Are “Runemarks” and “Runelight” full length novels? They sound interesting.
@MrsJoseph: It’s also available for sale at Smashwords in epub, if anyone is interested.
Even better! I don’t own a kindle but I love Kobo and Smashwords. Thanks!!
@Jayne: Oh, real history? That I do read. ;) Time to pull out the Herodotus.
Is this one of those 70 pagers that kind of makes you feel short changed?
Thanks for this rec! I absolutely love retellings of ancient myths and fairytales. Can anyone reccomend similar romances/fantasies along these lines?
@mari: Just finished Kristen Callihan’s Firelight, which used the Beauty and the Beast fairytale to beautiful effect.
Jayne, this sounds fascinating! Thanks for the recommend.
@LeeF: No, trust me I didn’t feel shortchanged at all. It’s complete in even that short (21420) a word count.
@Dabney: Ooh, D’Aulaires mythology. Still have my much loved and hanging-together-somehow copy from almost 50 years ago. The dust jacket is gone, but it was my favorite book growing up. Thanks for the reminder.
@Sunita: This is from her acknowledgements page: “In gratitude, always and for many things, to my brother; but in this case, particularly for how he sprang into action by slinging reference books from his collection my way as soon as I said the words “Ancient Greek warfare.” May hoplites never charge you. Also for my dad, who handed me Ovid’s Metamorphoses when I was a kid. Finally, my apologies to Herodotus.”
I also grew up reading a lot of Greek mythology. How I loved those stories as an eleven year old! I rarely read books based on them because usually they don’t measure up to the real thing, but I am going to have to make an exception for this novella. It sounds terrific, and straight A’s from you are as rare as hen’s teeth.
Yes, they are. I’ve just read Runemarks but thought it was great. Joanne Harris is a marvelous adult writer and she brings her skill set to the book which is ostensibly a YA novel.
@Laura, read Firelight. Sigh. The hero with all his crying and moaning turned me off. Oh well, keep looking.
@mari: I really liked it! :) What about Eloisa James’ series? Are you looking more for a sinking into the whole world or the subtle use of the symbols in a historical or contemporary setting? Oh, didn’t Meg Cabot just do a Persephone myth story? Now I can’t remember the title; it was in hardcover. I’m doing one myself in THE CHOCOLATE HEART, but it’s subtle. (That’s not out for a year, so I hope it doesn’t seem like blowing my own horn.)
One of the things that intrigues me about this particular novella here is that it’s actually sinking into the whole world, rather than re-interpreting the motif in another setting. I like both things, but the world of ancient Greek mythology is one we don’t get to see very much, really. (And that’s a shame–I love Greek mythology.) The sample of this looks beautifully written.
@Dabney: Is this the same Joanne Harris? https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/review-five-quarters-of-the-orange-by-joanne-harris/ I’ll have to look for these books.
Oh, that’s nice to hear. I really liked Karalynn Lee’s too short novella Heart of the Dragon’s Realm (link to spoilery review), too short because I wanted simply more in that world. She seems to have a really good grip on the fantastic and mythological part of her chosen genres.
The price is also great–click! I’ll also have to check out the other titles mentioned.
I grew up reading Mary Renault (The Persian Boy, The King Must Die, etc.), but these aren’t books to read if you’re looking for happy endings. (Greek mythology doesn’t have many happy endings, does it?)
Also not a romance, but I enjoyed Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind (about Iphagenia). It’s short, but powerful.
I loved Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch’s, but I always thought they were missing something… Oh yeah, the happy ending :) This story had exactly what I wanted from my mythology: the action and adventure and larger-than-life characters, plus a true, satisfying romance.
I love Greek mythology so very much and always look for the stories that make creative and knowledgeable use of it . Sold and thank you.
@Susan: Thanks for the rec to Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind. Really, really good. Sad, though! Totally cried like a baby. :(
So, it was nice to cleanse my palate with Back Across the Styx. Loved the world-building and the Hades/Persephone secondary romance. I actually enjoyed them more than the main couple, but Bion/Myrinne were cute too. :)
Thanks for the heads-up on this one. I just finished reading it and enjoyed it a great deal. As a couple of other commenters noted here, I loved the Hades/Persephone secondary romance a little more than the Bion/Myrrine one; however, both were a treat to read. I was especially fond of the father/daughter bond between Myrrine and the taciturn Charon.