Tuesday, June 25, 2013

#Fantasy #BookReview : 'Miss Underworld' by Racquel Kechagias

Miss Underworld is a modern adaptation of an ancient Greek myth, written and published by Australian author Racquel Kechagias. I met Racquel on Goodreads when we both commented on a posting about authors exchanging book reviews. She agreed to read Eminent Domain, and I agreed to read Miss Underworld. 

The main character in this short novel is Melinoe. Although she appears to be a normal young woman living in Sydney in modern times, we know from the prologue that her origin is far from ordinary. She is, in fact, the daughter of Zeus and Persephone.

If you're not a Greek mythology buff, you can skip the next section.

The Greek Mythology Stuff:

The ancient myth of Melinoe comes from an Orphic hymn. The Orphic hymns are a collection of 87 poems attributed to the mythic figure Orpheus, who was said to have journeyed to the underworld to collect his beloved Eurydice and returned still alive. Orpheus was renowned as a poet and a singer, and a religious cult developed around teaching attributed to him in ancient times. The Hymns are thought to have been written between approximately 200 BCE and 100 CE. The were translated in English by Thomas Taylor in 1792 and re-translated, supposedly with much more accuracy, by Apostolos Athanassakis.

The hymn to Melinoe is #70 in Taylor's translation and #71 in Athanassakis' translation (Taylor started his numbering at zero). The brief poem tells a story in which Zeus, pretending to be Hades, tricks Persephone into having sex with him (in other words, he rapes her) and Persephone subsequently gives birth to Melinoe. Melinoe "drives mortals to madness with her airy phantoms,/as she appears in weird shapes and forms" when she appears to mortals at night. She may be a personification of nightmares.

In an 1805 annotated version of Thomas's Orphic hymns by Gottfried Hermann, Wikipedia says, Melinoe is described as being half black and half white - literally, not in the usual mulitracial sense that human beings may be. In this way, she resembles the Norse mythological figure Hela, one of the children of Loki. Her two contrasting aspects represent her "two fathers," light for Zeus and dark for Hades (called Plouton in the Hymn).

The Wikipedia entry also mentions Melinoe as a character in the Percy Jackson series, where she is described as the "goddess of ghosts." In the Hymns, it's unclear that Melinoe is considered a goddess. She's sometimes considered a nymph, and sometimes considered an aspect of the underworld goddess Hecate, herself sometimes called an aspect of Persephone.

Back To Our Story:

In Racquel's telling, Melinoe looks like an average mortal human woman, except that her eyes are both stark black, and one has an eerie white film over it. She knows nothing about her unusual birth, and is raised in an orphanage. She's never been adopted, but aged out of the South Australian orphanage and moved to Sydney when she was sixteen. She lives with a very unusual roommate, a surfer-dude vampire named Bernard. Melinoe, called Meli for short, is appalled by Bernard's need to glamour women to drink their blood, but she has some very strange qualities of her own. Meli is sought out by ghosts, who need her help to cross over to the other side. Those who aren't able to cross over become vampires.

Suddenly, Meli finds herself being stalked by Death. She appeals to an older, stronger vampire - the turquoise-eyed Ivan - to protect her from Death, but even he is unable.

If I May Return to Mythology For Just A Moment: In our modern way of thinking, it's easy to equate the ancient Greek concept of the underworld with hell and Hades with the devil. However, in the Greek conception, the souls of the dead were not punished in the afterlife, although the very virtuous dead may have been rewarded. Hades and Persephone were the master and mistress of all human beings after their deaths, good and bad alike, and they were not thought of as evil. They were worshiped with the same awe and reverence as the Olympian gods. Similarly, it would be a cultural mistake to equate Hades with the modern personification of "Death" or the "Grim Reaper." To the Greeks, the god who collected souls and escorted them into the underworld was Hermes - Mercury to the Romans. Hermes wasn't particularly grim or scary.

Back To Our Story:

Meli senses Death - actually her stepfather Hades - is not the real threat. She has recurring dreams, perhaps based on a traumatic childhood memory, of a man associated with a terrible storm, and she sees this figure as the real threat. She's right - Hades and Persephone only want to let her know about her true parentage. Eventually, Meli is found and confronted by her biological father, Zeus. I won't spoil what happens when they meet, but it is not a sweet family reunion. Zeus is quite villainous in this.

Hades is not. Although he seeks revenge against his brother for Zeus's attack on Persephone, he loves Meli and accepts her as his own. He and Persephone are a good, strong match with genuine love and affection for one another.

Melinoe As Heroine: The plot of this novel, unfortunately, doesn't give Meli much chance to show off any special skills or powers she might have as the daughter of the King of the Gods and the Queen of the Underworld. (She's also Zeus's granddaughter, since Zeus is Persephone's father - a myth the book never mentions.) Her ability to aid ghosts is explained, but never really shown. She does come to the rescue of a new friend, a demigod figure named Morpheus who turns out to be the son of Poseidon. (In classical mythology, Morpheus is often considered the son of Hypnos, the god of sleep, and of the goddess Nyx.) However, she is powerless against Zeus and has to be saved by the intervention of Hades and Bernard. She has fascinating attributes, and she's quite brave, but the plot has more to do with her discovery of her true parents and her developing relationship with Bernard than a typical hero's epic journey.

Who Will Enjoy This Book? You might like this short novel if you enjoy young adult and new adult paranormal romances, since Melinoe and Bernard enjoy a slowly-developing friendship-to-love story that's sensual, but not explicit. There's a little bit of a love triangle involving Ivan as well. You might also like this book if you enjoy Greek mythology retellings for older YA readers, such as Aimee Carter's Goddess Test series or Lauren Hammond's Underworld Trilogy. If you like dark, brooding fantasy with an almost horror novel-like atmosphere of impending danger and mystery, this may be the book for you.

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