It all kicks off at the Thesmophoria which, long ago, was a three day fertility festival attended only by women. Nowadays – on the Island at least – it’s a one night opportunity for everyone to get plastered. That’ll suit Corey, since she’s furious with ex-best-friend Bree, and likewise with ex-boy-friend Ali. Ali’s dumped her, Bree said nothing, and now they’re an item. Corey reckons the Thesmophoria is the time and place to show them she doesn’t give a damn – so let them see her snogging someone else. And, she reckons, that stranger over there could be just the one – his face concealed by a hammered copper mask, other than his beautiful mouth, painted gold. His kiss tastes like ice or salt or diamonds. Corey wants more, so she……
Time for some explanation and context. Suppose Zeus and the Olympians had never faded into Ancient History but instead became the supreme deities world-wide. So now, everyday speech includes phrases like ‘For the love of Zeus’. Everywhere has its own temple and Priestess – and Corey’s Scottish Islands even have their own Oracle. Corey’s dad works at the lighthouse. Her mother left when Corey was small, but her step-mother, Merry, could not be more loving and understanding in times of trouble.
It was Thesmophoria that prompted me to read with a Classical Dictionary and an anthology of Greek myths to hand. Melinda Salisbury does not condescend to her readers with laboured explanations, but she offers the occasional echo. When Corey picks a single narcissus and finds herself slipping down into Hades’ kingdom, there’s no overt reference to Persephone’s similar adventure in the old myth. But consider Corey’s name. Classically schooled BfK readers might know that ‘Core’ is an alternative name for the young Persephone. Again, when they learn that Merry is short for MEREDITH, cryptic crossword puzzlers might spot that you could (almost) find the letters there to create DEMETER, mother of Persephone. Once Corey is in the Underworld, we witness her encounter with the swift-witted and readily-amused Hermes. Much of her time is spent with the three Furies, whose seeming friendliness she can never trust. And then there are her conversations with Hades himself. Readers who know the myths will surely enjoy Salisbury’s sustained and ingenious use of the legends; but to those for whom the characters, geography and vocabulary are entirely new, Salisbury offers a fantastic world unlike any they might have met on page or screen.
Outwardly, Corey engages confidently with the immortals. Her emotional challenges, above and below ground, are more testing, though possibly more familiar to YA readers both from their fiction and their own experiences; they include overwhelming attraction, persistent jealousy and consequent guilt. Corey cannot forgive Bree’s betrayal with Ali, but when her old friend is discovered drowned on the seashore after the revels of the Thesmophoria, Corey feels as though she is somehow responsible – as though she has willed the death. Corey’s mental struggle on the Island is matched by an intense conflict in the Underworld – for here she must try to understand her disconcerting feelings for Hades himself. She confronts the choice: can she remain in the Underworld when the ties to her secure home and the Island community are so strong? Inevitably, those pomegranate seeds of the ancient story play a part in how things turn out. But they are not as strong a factor as the awareness Corey has discovered through her experiences, physical and emotional, in Hades’ Kingdom.
This is an ambitious, daring book. It could be a memorable recommendation, not only for those familiar with the myths, but also for those capable of an open-minded, enquiring approach to the challenges – and rewards – this novel offers.