Cybele’s Secret

Juliet Marillier.  Cybele’s Secret.  New York: Knopf, 2008.  424 pgs.

This is the sequel to Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing, set six years later and focused — seemingly — on much more this-worldly intrigues.  Paula, the second-youngest of the five dancing sisters, is invited to join her father on a merchant voyage from Transylvania to Istanbul, where Teodor hopes to procure an ancient pagan artifact — Cybele’s Gift.  The item is said to contain the last words of the Anatolian earth goddess before she left the human world.

Naturally, Teodor is one of many people hunting this treasure, but neither he, nor Paula, yet realize how dangerous the hunt will be.  Besides the merchants, there are religious authorities that see the pagan symbol (and those who seek it) as a threat.  And then there are the forces of the Other Kingdom, unseen or heard by Paula for six years, now suddenly concerned for their own reasons in the matter.

. . . . . . .

Wildwood Dancing is one of my favorite fantasy novels.  It’s one of those stories I knew after the first few sentences was going to be wonderful –

I’ve heard it said that girls can’t keep secrets.  That’s wrong: we’ve proved it.  We’d kept ours for years and years, ever since we came to live at Piscul Dracului and stumbled on the way into the Other Kingdom.

Notice that defiant yet encouraging tone.  You’re not simply watching the first scene open; the narrator is leading you in herself, suggesting she’s chosen to trust you with this secret.

And the rest of the story follows through beautifully.  The pacing, the structure, the narrative voice, and oh of course the blending of various Eastern European fairy- and folktales…

Cybele’s Secret was more of a mixed experience.  Its predecessor was brimming with magic, much of the action set in the Other Kingdom.  The first 3/4 of the sequel focuses on the human world, on human sociopolitical intrigues, which feel kind of mundane in comparison.  Especially when the story falls into been-there-read-that territory, attempting to dazzle me with its dashing pirate antagonist, its buff-and-tough-yet-sensitive protector, lots of snarky/flirtatious banter, and…ugh…a love triangle.

. . . . . . .

Things I loved:

  • Paula’s personal blend of religious/spiritual beliefs – she believes in some elements of Christianity, but equally respects and appreciates other faiths and forces.  She seems to see the Christian God not as an intimidating, jealous being, but one who works alongside other creative and life-sustaining powers – including Cybele.
  • The exploration of Mediterranean and Eastern European mythology.  That was what kept me stubbornly plowing through the slow and/or cliché parts of the story.  There were even elements that reminded me of the Lithuanian tale, Eglė Žalcių Karalienė (Eglė, Queen of Serpents) —  a human bride who has chosen to follow her supernatural lover into his realm…  the bride’s eventual wish to see her family again…  the need to complete seemingly impossible tasks before she is allowed to see her family…  and, the biggest resemblance, the bride’s eventual association with/affinity for snakes (though that moment in Cybele’s Secret did feel a bit random)…  oh, and the goddess represented as a tree.

“There were patterns here far larger and older than our minds could encompass.  Wisdom, a deeper form of wisdom than any scholarship could unlock.” [1]

  • The cover.  Even more complex than that of Wildwood Dancing, it’s a puzzle you have to return to several times, each time noticing something new – a pair of eyes where you’d only seen a flower, a silhouette, a set of claws, a hooded figure…

Things I (really) didn’t:

  • Fiction, can we please get over the love triangle?  It’s not compelling anymore.  It really isn’t.  Maybe it was once upon a time, when the idea of the heroine having to choose between two possible one-true-loves was OMG shocking!  But it’s not that big a deal anymore.
  • Better yet, can we get over the idea that every YA heroine over the age of ten must have a romantic subplot?*  Even Disney’s gotten over that trope.  Honestly – no, honestly! – I think Paula’s quest would have been compelling enough (if not more so) without the romantic drama.  The plot would certainly have moved more quickly and smoothly.

* This insight about teen-and-older female heroines comes from this episode of Rebecca Morse’s (a.k.a. pika-la-cynique) awesome fourth- and sometimes fifth- wall blasting, crossover-crazy fancomic series, Girls Next Door.

  • The end (no spoilers, I promise) is not just fairly predictable; things in the final chapter happen too easily, namely in the way Paula’s father reacts to these things.  Sure, he’s been established since the previous book as an open-minded and rather lenient parent, but still…


Regional earth goddess folklore, and any scenes involving the Other Kingdom = 😀

The human-world intrigues surrounding Cybele’s Gift = 🙂

Token love triangle = 9_9 (that’s an eye-roll face)

To fans of Wildwood Dancing, I’d say you can take it or leave it.  As a sequel, it’s ok, but I don’t feel like it’s added anything vital to my understanding of the world created in the previous story.  On its own, Cybele’s Secret has very compelling moments that could have worked even better without the trope-y moments.

. . . . . . . .

[1] Cybele’s Secret, pg 347

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