Book Review: Radiant Darkness by Emily Whitman

Possessing some Greek heritage, I have long been fascinated by ancient Greek mythology. In particular, Hades’ abduction of Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, has been one of my favorite myths. But the first sentence of this book, Radiant Darkness (2009) by Emily Whitman, which informs the reader that we mortals have had the story wrong for centuries, intrigued me. From there, I couldn’t put the book down.

Told in the first person, present tense in Persephone’s own lovely, gentle voice, I eagerly accompanied her through her eternal life in a verdant but confining vale, being squelched and suffocated by an overprotective mother who refuses to permit her little girl to change or grow up. But when Hades appears – handsome, strong, sensual and tender Hades, Lord of the Dead – Persephone’s heart willingly becomes his captive. And her affections are genuinely reciprocated. Hades wishes for Persephone to rule at his side in the Underworld and become his queen. With her powers of life and vitality, she brings balance to the death and decay he oversees. Deeply in love, Persephone agrees, and chooses to go with him.

Unfolding is a truly touching and heart-tugging (yet, also subtle) love story between Persephone and Hades. I adored Whitman’s depiction of the power-hungry and kingly yet romantic god, and was right beside Persephone, swooning over her husband. But Persephone’s descent into the Underworld begets grief and mourning for her mother, Demeter, above on Earth. And too many mortals are dying and crowding the Underworld as a result of Demeter’s drought, upsetting the balance between mortals and shades, life above and death below. In the end, it’s up to Persephone to speak her mind to her husband and mother, and correct things.

Not only was this story captivating, but the writing is stellar. Whitman is not merely an author – she’s a poet. Her prose is phenomenal. I caught myself highlighting and rereading passages, simply to marvel at her command of language and storytelling. I couldn’t be more impressed with this book and everything about it. If you like novels about young women in Greek mythology, like Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney or Nobody’s Princess by Esther Friesner, beautiful love stories set in ancient Greece with a fantasy/mythological twist, such as Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli, or myths retold from a fresh new perspective, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, I enthusiastically recommend this wonderful, romantic story.

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