Persephone has everything a daughter of Zeus could want–except for freedom. She lives on the green earth with her mother, Demeter, growing up beneath the ever-watchful eyes of the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus. But when Persephone meets the enigmatic Hades, she experiences something new: choice.
Zeus calls Hades “lord” of the dead as a joke. In truth, Hades is the goddess of the underworld, and no friend of Zeus. She offers Persephone sanctuary in her land of the dead, so the young goddess may escape her Olympian destiny.
But Persephone finds more than freedom in the underworld. She finds love, and herself.
In the author’s words, this is a lesbian revisionist retelling.
Nothing gets me hotter than those three magic words. I may one day find something that is a lesbian revisionist retelling of something that’ll displease me–I cannot imagine what that might be, but never say never–but that day is surely not today. This book also has the honor (and I’m not trying to deliver a backhanded compliment) of being the very first YA book that truly impresses and touches me. It’s not a perfect book, and reading it I often wish the pacing was better, the language more complex, the characterization more nuanced… but there’s a reason I finished and enjoyed this while I couldn’t finish Malinda Lo’s Huntress nor ultimately truly enjoy Ash.
Oh, and it’s self-published, but who gives a shit?
The first thing that struck me is that, for YA, this is quite explicit. Nothing scandalous, but you have on-page sex that’s very sexual, if described in non-literal language. It’s not the unfortunate flowery euphemisms of romance either. It’s language that’s decent, even if it’s not exactly Angela Carter. By YA standards it’s honest-to-goodness literary gold. This also means that the rape scene is… not off-screen. It’s not graphic; it’s nothing like Justina Robson’s and at 83 words, it’s blessedly brief. But effective, even if I’m not really a fan of the idea that someone must be raped to fuel the heroine’s motivation (lesbian in the refrigerator?).
The Dark Wife juxtaposes a number of not-unpopular ideas–the distortion of myth (in this case, among other things, the genders of Hellenic gods), the idea that a divine being’s state of mind shapes their realm (yes, hello, Morpheus), and the trend of refuting Disneyfication by resurrecting the brutality of the original. In this novel Zeus is his very original rapey douchebag self–
I had heard tales of Zeus’ conquests. He would zap down to earth, lustful, in need of something his wife, Hera, could not provide—or, perhaps she could, and she simply found him despicable. He had his way with whatever creature struck his fancy, and if they were not obliging, he punished them. Hundreds of times he had done this, perhaps thousands. I knew of these stories… but, shamefully, they had never concerned me. They had never applied to me. But now, here—here was a nightmare come to life. The girl I loved had been raped before my eyes, and she was no more.
–and all under his dominion have very little choice but submit to the truth that what Zeus wants, Zeus gets. This is the case for Persephone too, who finds herself helpless as her nymph lover Charis is raped and turned to a rose bush; who finds that her mother–the goddess she’s always thought as powerful and perfect–is just as helpless before the might of Zeus. Confronted with “What if it was me?” Demeter can only remain silent; she can only say “I’m glad it wasn’t you” before revealing that Persephone’s father is Zeus. To no one’s surprise, he wants to rape her, too.
It’s not the most subtle, but it’s effective. Persephone’s responses to all this, her fear, anxiety, her shell-shock, it all comes across very well. Where most YA is written through the lens of unself-aware adolescence, Diemer’s narrative is thoroughly adult.
It is notable, incidentally, that pretty much all the women are either bi or gay. Athena? Gay. Pallas? Gay. Hades and Persephone? Duh. Aphrodite? Flirts with Persephone. There’s a passage that suggests that Athena and Demeter may have engaged in not-quite-platonic relations if you know what I mean, as the author’s confirmed, is meant to suggest that Demeter is pansexual. Apart maybe from this one dead woman in the underworld, I don’t think I located a single straight lady in there. On top of that, there are maybe two-three major male characters. Nearly everyone who moves and shakes and makes this narrative is a queer woman. This is a novel by a queer lady for queer ladies.
How rare is that, relatively speaking? And how fine, how excellent.
And then, “I am Hades,” she said. My world fell away. Hades…Hades, the lord of the underworld…was a woman.
“But, but…” I spluttered, and she watched me with catlike curiosity, head tilted to the sound of my voice as I attempted to regain my senses. “They call you the lord of the Underworld. I thought—”
“It is a slur,” she breathed.
I’m not sure how intentional this was, but having a woman reject being called a man as a slur flies in the face of what we know: where gendered slurs bite women hardest, where the worst thing for a man is to be called feminine or girly, where women are often flattered for being told that we think or work or even write like a man. That Persephone is close to her mother, and worries over what’d happen to her once she’s made the choice of seeking refuge in Hades’ lands, is also rare: so often heroines defer to their fathers, privilege their fathers over mothers, and Cindy Pon’s Ai Ling runs away from a circumstance not unlike Persephone’s without a thought for her mother. While Hermes is instrumental in urging Persephone to seek Hades’ help, this is a story where women help and uplift each other, and care about each other deeply.
Further proving that she’s a conscientious author, Diemer doesn’t go with the easy path of experienced guy, virginal girl YA writers (and most writers period) are so fond of; by the time Persephone first meets Hades she has already loved and lost another woman, and despite the disparity in power and age between the two there is room for them to meet on equal footing.
While the prose is frequently competent–
They came ashore one by one, a stream of lithe ladies with haunting, slippery smiles. They embraced me, kissed me, whispered in my ears, and when they laughed, it was the sound of tide breaking.
–sometimes it’d drop into teenage language: “Hades is in official mode today” or “her aura pulsed with love.” There are times when I wish Diemer would limit usage of “love” in any iteration whatsoever to… a lot less, and there are chunks of writing that first border on then plunge headfirst into saccharine.
I bent my head and lapped up a mouthful of the seeds. The thing about pomegranates is that they are sweet and sour—they make you shiver, as you devour them; they are sticky and red like mortals’ blood, and you must chew them thoughtfully, carefully, a meditation on what it is to be a seed, to be courageous enough to grow inside a deep, dark fruit, waiting, waiting, waiting. I swallowed the seeds, and I licked the palm of Hades’ hand, even as she devoured her own portion. I let the knife fall to the floor, splattering the white marble with the juice of the fruit, and I lay down again, lay down beside her, red washing over me, red within and without of me. The red of the pomegranate and the red of my love mixed together into something deep, pulsating, a music only we could hear.
This is probably one of the book’s best passages, but it’s ruined by the fixation on the word love rather than the idea of it (“the red of my love” is… not good), a seed imagery that is truly unfortunate (if I was her editor, and I realize I am not, I would have chopped it down to “a meditation on what it is to grow inside a deep, dark fruit, waiting”), and prose that’s just a little bit overwrought. This holds true for much of the book. Diemer can certainly write, and better than a fair amount of pro-pub’d writers too, but there are things which keep her language from being truly great. I adore the idea of going to sleep on someone’s loving boobs or lap as much as anybody, but after the first two times Persephone pillows her head on Hades’ breast it started to become repetitious; much the same holds true for Hades’ soft-spoken ways, which results in most of her dialogue tags being “whisper.”
Still, the development of the Persephone-Hades relationship can’t be discounted. While I’ve seen goodreads comments to the tune of “Hades is too perfect!” it works for me, admittedly because Diemer’s Hades pushes pretty much all my buttons: she’s tall, dark, bishoujo, melancholy, gentle and likes ladies. I wouldn’t have said no to her being fleshed out more, but what’s there more than suffices. Happily the relationship doesn’t rely on teenage stupidity and ridiculous misunderstandings–while there is a good bit of love-at-first-sight, there’s also significant attention paid to how they learn about each other.
I do have a number of complaints with the pacing, the morality (which tends toward the simplistic) and the climax (which is a little odd), and several narrative devices that I’m not a great fan of. But it speaks volumes about Diemer’s characterization and writing that I’m able to look past all those, enjoy the book, and breeze through it in a day. Considering that reading YA for me is like pushing boulders uphill both ways while being pelted with rotten fish, you can appreciate how exceptional that is.
The Dark Wife can be either downloaded for free or purchased, with various options. A follow-up in the same setting is upcoming. I’m also quite interested in Diemer’s Sappho’s Fables and will be keeping an eye out for them once the collections come out.