Cybele’s Secret, by Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier is the author of a number of books, one of which was Wildwood Dancing, which I read and reviewed earlier. This novel is a companion (not a direct sequel; it follows a different character) to that one, and continues the story of the Transylvanian sisters. Ms. Marillier is a musician by training and a writer by vocation; she has been a full-time writer since 2002. Her family emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand many years ago, and she lives in a cottage in Perth, Australia.

Paula is Jena’s younger sister, the scholarly, studious one. She has been helping her father with many of his business matters, and dreams of starting her own rare-book collection. When he mentions that he is going to travel to wherever-it-is, Paula immediately clamors to go along — and is allowed. For in the city, there is a woman named Irene who has her own scholarly haven for women, and Paula would like to study there. They get to town, hire a bodyguard for Paula, and she begins her studies — but something is strange about the piece they have come to town to buy, called Cybele’s Gift. Many people are after it, and things are starting to happen — attacks, sudden withdrawals from the bidding, and the involvement of strange individuals including a pirate . . .

Our setting, for this volume of the story, is Istanbul, and we are still in the eighteenth century, as far as I could tell. It’s a great time and place to set a book; many things are all converging between the Eastern and Western worlds in that area at that time. The history of the Ottoman Empire is so rich, and Ms. Marillier didn’t even mine a significant percent of it. She didn’t need to — she set out to write a story about a merchant, his daughter, and an exotic, possibly magical piece, and wove in realistic details without overencumbering the story with the entire weight of Turkish civilization. However, Ms. Marillier included excellent details about being a woman at that time in that city, and I found them captivating.

The plot isn’t thoroughly novel; it’s sort of a puzzle story mixed with a love triangle wrapped up in some goddess lore. While it draws on many sources, though, it manages to take all the elements and mix them togehter into something that’s entirely its own. The puzzle story had enough detail to keep me interested (another example of a common puzzle story would be anything by Dan Brown), although not enough that I had figured everything out by the end. The love story was enchanting, and the goddess lore read as quite logical to me. While she isn’t that well-known, Cybele is actually a Phrygian earth/mother goddess sort who was worshipped in the Mediterranean in the past.

I liked Paula, a lot, but I’ve always liked truly brainy, bookish female characters. (What? I identify with them? No, really?) I’m sort of disappointed to realize that even if Ms. Mariller writes another book featuring this family, it will not be focused on Paula herself. Her swains — the pirate and the bodyguard — are also both interesting in their own ways. Paula’s father is much more interesting in this volume than in Wildwood Dancing, but that is most likely because he’s actually on stage for a larger percentage of the book. Irene, the Greek scholar, has quite a few secrets, and managed to retain my interest because of them.

This book has, as I’ve detailed above, a wonderfully exotic setting, a fascinating twist on a common plot, a great love story, interesting characters, and a satisfying resolution. In other words, I loved it, and I have no hesitation in giving it 5/5 stars.

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