Cybele’s Secret is Juliet Marillier’s second novel intended for a Young Adult readership. It is set in the same world as its predecessor, the award-winning Wildwood Dancing, and like that excellent book it should prove popular with Marillier’s adult fans, too.
Although it brings back many of the same characters as the earlier book, Cybele’s Secret is a stand alone story. It tells how Paula, the second youngest of the dancing sisters, goes on a quest to find a mysterious and valuable artifact from an ancient religion. The search takes her to Turkey in the company of her father. En route, she encounters the fascinating pirate, Duarte, and once in Istanbul she meets a far different young man, the bodyguard Stoyan. From this triangle there develops romance, adventure and a quest for self-discovery. Paula receives messages from the Other Kingdom, and to decipher them she has to deal with ruthless merchants and scholars and encounters with deception and murder. Readers of Wildwood Dancing will recognize the scholarly Paula as the same girl who, as a child, preferred to sit at the feet of sages while her sisters danced in the magical glade of the Other Kingdom. She is seventeen now; still scholarly and adventurous to boot. The magic in this book is more mysterious and somewhat darker than that of Wildwood Dancing, being tied up with the ancient mystery religion of Cybele, an earth goddess with links to the underworld.
As always, Marillier’s scholarship is impeccable. Research in Istanbul enabled her to portray that city as it was in even Ottoman times. We see the place and time through Paula’s eyes: mosques, markets and ancient texts are shown in fine detail. Major characters come from a variety of ethneticities: Paula and her father are Romanian; Duarte is Portuguese; Stoyan is Bulgarian and other characters include not only Turkish but also Greek, Genoese, Neapolitan and more. The clever interweaving of these characters makes for a multicultural mix that adds both colour and depth to the book. The principal characters are well-developed and convincing and even the minor ones are distinct individuals. We are as surprised as Paula when we discover who her main opponent is and almost to the very end we wonder which man will finally win her heart. Paula learns a lot about herself and her place in the world in the course of her many adventures, and the tale builds to a classic romantic ending that will leave any young lady (and many older ones) weeping tears of joy.