Hades’ Daughter, by Sara Douglass

hades-daughter-by-sara-douglass coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: two stars
Book Review by Bluejack

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Welcome to The Troy Game, the latest major project by the prolific Australian Sara Douglass. This immense volume (or, as this kind of thing is sometimes called, ‘word cube’) is the first of four in what is billed as historical fantasy. In disappointing contrast to her previous American release, The Wayfarer Redemption, Hades’ Daughter is a dreadful muddle of a book from start to finish.

Douglass knows how to do her research, and when she gets her facts wrong, which in this book is just about always, it is no accident. Asked about it in reference to a previous series, she replied, I did it “because it amused me.” Hades’ Daughter begins with the mythic story of Ariadne and Theseus. You will recall that she rescues him from labyrinth and Minotaur, and he repays her by stranding her on an island. From here, the book quickly becomes a hopeless muddle of Greek, Roman, Celtic, and near-Eastern myth. Douglass must have been very amused, indeed.

The text itself reads like a jumble of television shows: a little Xena, a lot of Hercules, a dash of Highlander, and a supersized dollop of Passions, NBC’s surreal, supernatural soap opera. It delivers all the melodrama but none of the camp.

The first hundred pages or so, including five different chapterlets before the actual Chapter One, are particularly tough going. With dozens of characters, all of whom are unsavory, and none of whom appear to have much actual character, it is very hard to sort out who is who, and why it matters. If I weren’t reading this for purposes of review, I would never have gotten through it.

Eventually things simplify, more or less. A Trojan named Brutus (like the Roman defender of the Republic, except, uh, not) conquers a Greek town called Mesopotamia (like Mesopotamia, except, also, not). There he weds Cornelia, daughter of the defeated chief. Brutus rapes his unwilling bride, the first of many scenes of sexual violence, and then we are off. Technically, this is a fantasy, but the magic reminds me of a car trip in a gas-guzzling Chevy prone to inopportune breakdowns. Magic levels are frequently described as ‘low,’ and require constant repairs.

The story employs the tropes of the romance novel. Cornelia eventually comes round to love her rapist, but only after she alienates him completely. It was impossible to sympathize with any of these wretched figures — unlike the romance standard, Brutus is no well-intentioned gentle rake: he’s a dumb lunk at best, and more often a cruel brute. Other characters include Cornelia’s breasts which have such an impact on everyone they are practically a character of their own, Genvissa, the Celtic progeny of Ariadne, scheming to gain the power of a God, Loth who literally eats his own mother’s breasts off in order to rip her heart out with his own teeth — and then there’s the villain, Asterion, the Minotaur of ancient Crete, intent upon making everyone more miserable than they are already making themselves.

The narrative shifts point of view continually. Between chapters, within chapters, whatever. It doesn’t succeed as omniscient author, however: that style is never really employed. Periodically we get a first person view from the tedious, petty, self-destructive, and uninspired Cornelia (she is apparently the eponymous Daughter of Hades). Regrettably, we never get the POV of her breasts. The beginning of each section jumps ahead to 1939, which is apparently where the whole tetralogy is going to end up. But sentence to sentence, the language can also shift from high-fantasy to contemporary. For example, Cornelia is described as a ‘trophy wife,’ and ‘nonperishables’ are loaded onto ships.

In her epic fantasy series, Douglass proved herself a strong, if unoriginal, storyteller. In Hades’ Daughter, the storytelling falters due to technical problems and the lack of any sympathetic character. Fans of soap operas, accustomed to find some enjoyment in the endless intrigue of mutually hateful characters may reach a different opinion. For such readers, the ending will not disappoint.

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