Patrice Kindl,
Lost in the Labyrinth
(Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

The epic adventures of Theseus have never been among my favorite Greek myths. They always seem so polarized, with a clear antagonist (the Minotaur, in this case) who, by the end of the story, is always neatly dispatched by the hero.

But that is the version told by Greek men. Lost in the Labyrinth is Xenodice's version.

And who, you may well ask, is Xenodice? She is the third, unambitious, sometimes overlooked daughter of Queen Pasiphae and her consort King Minos of Crete; younger sister to haughty Ariadne (yes, that Ariadne); half sister to Asterius, better known as the Minotaur; friend to exiled Athenian craftsmen, Daedalus and his handsome son Icarus. In short, standing as she does at both the center and the circumference of a labyrinth of myths, close to the main actors but rarely one herself, she is in the perfect position to tell it like it really happened.

All is not well in the labyrinthine palace of Knossos. Years ago, Queen Pasiphae's eldest son was killed. She blames his death upon Athenian treachery and King Minos's carelessness. In vengeance, she demands an annual tribute of 14 Athenian youths; and to forever shame her husband, she conceives a monstrous son with the bull god. Their relationship, as you might imagine, never quite recovers. But it isn't until Theseus arrives among the latest shipment of Athenian youths and vows to dispatch the flesh-eating Minotaur (who actually has no part of Minos in his parentage and is moreover strictly vegetarian) that old resentments give rise to new mutiny and increasing hostilities and plotting at court. Worse yet, Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and, in her determination to save him at any cost to herself or those around her, triggers a series of tumultuous events. Caught in between, a troubled Xenodice finds her own loyalties increasingly divided between those she loves and their private agendas.

Patrice Kindl does an excellent job with the often tricky first-person voice. Xenodice's narrative is direct, immediate and compelling, and the many details of her world are mentioned unobtrusively, since they are ordinary to her, and the more effective because of it. Seeing the events from her eyes also brings the epic nature of her story down to a more human and intimate level. Characters, despite imposing names and famous (or infamous) fates, come across as believable people -- mothers, fathers, sisters and friends -- with sympathetic motives. There are no heroes in her direct, unornamented narrative, and no true villains, either: Asterius is a simple creature, violent only when provoked, Theseus is a typical hero, carelessly leaving a trail of bodies and broken hearts behind him, though doing no intentional evil.

Lost in the Labyrinth has much to recommend itself, but what I wanted was more -- even more detail about Xenodice's life in ancient Crete, and further acquaintance with the various characters, many of whom are seen only briefly. And be forewarned! This book has little of the frothy wit and lightness that characterized Kindl's earlier novel, Goose Chase. Being familiar with the myths on which Lost in the Labyrinth is based, I winced as the young Xenodice vowed to marry Icarus or no one early on in the book. And Kindl never allows the reader to forget that what is seen from one perspective as a triumph is, in another, a tragedy.

Although not the first exploration of Theseus and the Minotaur, Lost in the Labyrinth is one of the most thoughtful. Richard Purtill's out-of-print fantasy, The Golden Gryphon Feather, makes an interesting companion book, as it details many of the same events and characters from the perspective of one of the Athenian youths brought to Crete. Greek mythology fans may also want to try Lloyd Alexander's whimsical The Arkadians.

Patrice Kindl is a strong writer and a highly versatile one. I hear her next book has lots and lots of insects....

by Jennifer Mo
5 November 2005

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