At seventeen, scholarly Paula embarks on an adventure - a trip to Istanbul with her merchant father, to purchase an ancient artefact known as “Cybele’s Gift”. Paula’s fervent desire to return to the mysterious and magical Other Kingdom she knew as a child has been replaced by the more practical ambition of becoming a trader herself. But clues and whispers soon convince Paula that she has been set a magical quest, one that may lead to her lost sister Tati.
Competition for Cybele’s Gift is fierce, and Paula soon finds herself in danger in the great Ottoman city. Their hired guard and protector has secrets of his own, and what interest could the pirate Duarte possibly have in Paula? The hunt for the artefact is on! Riddles and tests of courage and strength lie before them, and the price of failure is death…
Perhaps best known for her popular Sevenwaters trilogy, Juliet Marillier delights with a fantasy novel set between the Istanbul of the early Ottoman period, and the mysterious Other Kingdom. Cybele’s Secret has some similarities with Sevenwaters: a strong heroine, mysterious clues, strange otherworldly creatures and their penchant for testing mortals. Marillier brings Istanbul vividly to life, with all its sights and sounds, the food, clothes, bathhouses, bazaars, and of course libraries of the ancient city.
The story is well-paced, driven by the bidding contest for Cybele’s Gift and Paula’s quest, with plenty of romantic interest and intrigue surrounding Paula and the unscrupulous Duarte, and Paula’s shy bodyguard, Stoyan. Marillier’s characters always seem to grow in maturity throughout her novels, and it’s a pleasure to travel with them as they do so. The tantalising clues and the mission Paula is entrusted with all keep the plot moving, and I found it an enjoyable read.
However, the emphasis for most of Cybele’s Secret is on the world of Istanbul, rather than the Other Kingdom, and perhaps for this reason there were moments when the two seemed to jar. For example, the clues that Paula follows up the mountainside seemed a little contrived and it was easy to sympathise with Duarte’s incredulity. Yet at other moments, such as when a woman who might be Paula’s lost sister Tati appeared standing high on the mast of a ship, the juxtaposition of the two worlds worked brilliantly.
Marillier is an accomplished writer whose characters always ring true, and whose fantasy worlds always enchant. Here, the world of Ottoman Istanbul is painstakingly and vividly recreated, but after the world of Sevenwaters, Cybele’s Secret left me wanting a bit more magic and a bit less detective work.
Overall, though, this is well worth reading. But, if you’re looking for an emphasis on Marillier’s magical Other Kingdom, it might be best to start with the Sevenwaters trilogy (Daughters of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, and Child of the Prophecy) and also the Sevenwaters stand-alone novel, Heir to Sevenwaters.
In addition to this, I would also recommend another couple of detective novel set in Istanbul: Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red and Jason Goodwin’s The Snake Stone (along with the rest of the Yashim the Eunuch Series).
Reviewed by Emma Newrick