One of the times I sat in on the Best Books for Young Adults deliberations last year, they were discussing Wildwood Dancing, which sounded so intriguing that I checked it out and read it. I like re-interpretations of fairy tales, and this had more than one (although I admit it took me far too long to figure out the whole frog character -- duh!) in a nicely romantic story. So when its "companion," Cybele's Secret came my way, I decided to give it a listen. The author, Juliet Marillier, offers plenty of hints about the plot of the first book in this companion, so I think it stands alone perfectly well.
Paula, the third of five daughters of a Transylvanian tradesman, has always been the scholarly one of the family -- most likely to follow her father's footsteps into the buying and selling of interesting books and artifacts. She accompanies her father to Istanbul, where he plans to acquire an ancient artifact called Cybele's Gift -- which turns out to be a broken statue of the earth goddess herself. Alas, Paula and her father are not the only people interested in the artifact -- some will even kill for it. Paula's father hires a bodyguard, the handsome Stoyan (note the male figure just to the left of Cybele [click here for a larger version] ... classic romance novel cover guy!), with whom Paula develops a close friendship. But before Paula's father can make an offer on the statue, he is gravely assaulted in the street, and Cybele ends up in the hands of the dashing, but piratical, Duarte da Costa Aguiar (note second male, slightly left and above Stoyan). Convinced that Duarte organized the assault on her father in order to obtain the artifact, Paula confronts him aboard his ship. However, someone else is on the trail of Cybele -- so before Paula can leave the ship, Duarte has set sail. Fortunately, Stoyan made it aboard the Esperanza as well.
Paula's journey with the two men takes her north to the Black Sea and up the rugged mountains, and into the Other Kingdom -- the parallel world that she and her sisters used to visit every full moon. It is there that Paula will be tested to her limits, and where she finds, and loses, her heart's desire. It's a very exciting adventure, with something for everyone: romance, fairy tales, ancient gods, a perilous journey.
Justine Eyre, who I thought did a professional job reading a very difficult book -- Evil Genius, is really quite splendid here. She perfectly captures Paula's (pronounced Paow-lah) naivete underlaid with intellect and steely resolve. Eyre has to do a lot with accents here: Paula and her father's native Transylvanian, Paula and her father speaking Greek with everyone in Istanbul, Stoyan (from Bulgaria) and Duarte (from Portugal) speaking Greek, plus assorted creatures -- human and otherwise -- in the Other Kingdom. She opted for a general soft th sound for everyone who spoke Greek, but there were subtle differences. The Transylvanians and the denizens of the Other Kingdom all had middle European accents (lots of v's and rolled r's). Our three heros -- Paula and the two men -- were each nicely characterized and easily distinguishable.
Eyre paces herself well. The story builds slowly -- Paula sails away with Duarte slightly less than halfway through the book -- but once the chase is on to bring Cybele home, she knows how to pour on the vocal tension and excitement. Danger and suspense are clear in Eyre's voice. And once Paula loses her heart, her sadness, and eventually -- I don't think I'm giving too much away -- her happiness are palpable.
As I reflect on our listening year with the last submissions coming our way this month, I think I've been quite stingy with my praise. I haven't liked much. So, I'm going to loosen my requirements to get a few more good (but not great) things under discussion in January. And I'm going to start by nominating this.