Monthly Marillier: “Cybele’s Secret”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Cybele’s Secret” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: For Paula, accompanying her merchant father on a trading voyage to Istanbul is a dream come true. They have come to this city of trade on a special mission to purchase a most rare artifact—a gift from the ancient goddess, Cybele, to her followers. It’s the only remnant of a lost, pagan cult.

But no sooner have they arrived when it becomes clear they may be playing at a dangerous game. A colleague and friend of Paula’s father is found murdered. There are rumors of Cybele’s cult reviving within the very walls of Istanbul. And most telling of all, signs have begun to appear to Paula, urging her to unlock Cybele’s secret.

Meanwhile, Paula doesn’t know who she can trust in Istanbul, and finds herself drawn to two very different men. As time begins to run out, Paula realizes they may all be tied up in the destiny of Cybele’s Gift, and she must solve the puzzle before unknown but deadly enemies catch up to her. . . .

Review: “Wild wood Dancing” definitely reads as a stand-alone, so I remember being surprised when I saw a second book coming out in this series. But given that it’s a story of five sisters, the continuing stories are easy to see. I wasn’t surprised, however, to see that this book focused on Paula. She was the other “sensible” sister of the five and seemed like the natural choice for Marillier, an author who tends towards rather similar heroines in the first place. I can’t lie, I might have been more intrigued with one of the other sisters, more outside her usual realm, but alas. And sadly, this is another of my lesser favorite works by this author.

Everyone had always assumed Jena would be the one to accompany their father in his travels and help with his trade business. But after she marries, the role falls on bookish Paula who journeys with her father to Istanbul, a city full of culture and learning. What began as a simple business trip, however, quickly becomes something more, with powerful cults being rumored to be active once again and a rare artifact at the center of it all. Confident in her own reasoning and logic, Paula begins to unravel the puzzle before her. But things only become more and more complicated, with strange signs and symbols and two men vying for her attention. Can Paula solve this mystery before her time is up?

Anyone who knows me can probably guess what one of my problems was with this book right from the description, both mine and the official summary above. Yep, love triangle. From my memory, this is really the only Marillier book that has a love triangle at its heart, and that’s probably one of the reasons she’s a favorite author of mine. Instead of wasting time between two love interests (time split between two often plays to the detriment of both), Marillier often sets up her end-game couple early on and spends the rest of the book slowly developing it. I remember my friend, Emily, read “Daughter of the Forest” and was unhappy that Sorcha didn’t end up with Simon. But from my read, that idea had never even entered my head, so strong of a love interest was Red once he arrived.

So, yes, here we see a true love triangle, with Paula drawn to both of these men in different ways. While it still felt fairly obvious which one she was going to choose, that fact just made it more of a challenge to read Paula’s ongoing struggles in the love department. On top of that, neither love interest was particularly compelling on his own. It’s bad enough when one romantic interest isn’t that great. But when you have two and a large part of your heroine’s arc is debating between the two and neither seem very great? Not good.

I also didn’t love Paula as a character. In a bit of backward thinking, the fact that she felt more “perfect” than Jena before her almost made her, too, less interesting. It can be argued that the challenges that Paula faces here are much more dangerous and difficult than what Jena had to deal with in her story. But Paula rarely faltered, other than perhaps a bit of over-reliance on her own smarts. What has become a bit of a routine complaint with these books, Paula is almost too perfect.

I did like the magical elements involved in the story. The last third, in particular, really dives into some interesting aspects of fantasy. There are also a few cameo appearances of characters from the first book, but sadly, not Jena. I also really enjoyed the setting of Istanbul. Marillier’s books are almost exclusively set in Ireland or Scandinavia, so Istanbul is a far cry from those settings. Her lyrical, detailed language really played well to describing the colorful, vibrant life of this ancient city.

So, this is one of my less favorite books in the series. It seems like every trilogy/duology of her comes with one book that is a huge favorite and another that is more of a let-down. While I’ve re-read “Wildwood Dancing” many, many times, this was the first re-read I’ve ever done of this book and I’m kind of reminded why. Fans of Paula from the first book would probably like this, and, in general, it’s still a strong book on its own in the subgenre of fairytale fantasy. Just not one of Marillier’s best works.

Rating 7: A love triangle and overly-perfect heroine brought down a book that did excel in the world-building arena, at least.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cybele’s Secret” is on these Goodreads lists: Hidden Gems of the Young Adult Genre and Aussie YA Paranormal and Fantasy.

Find “Cybele’s Secret” at your library using WorldCat!

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