Berkeley Books: New York
Looking through a box of books stored in the basement for the better part of two decades, I came upon a little gem that I recalled enjoying when I first read it so many years ago. I found Barbara Michaels’ (aka Elizabeth Peters; real name, Barbara Mertz) The Sea King’s Daughter to be even more enjoyable (and complex) now than my past reading.
This slim volume explores, through its various protagonists, how we are all captives of history—our own as well as wider cultural and “public” history we share. While The Sea King’s Daughter is a romance/mystery/thriller (Michaels is a master of the genre), it does remind one of Faulkner’s observation that “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
Sandy Bishop, whose birth name was Ariadne Frederick, is introduced to the reader an athletic, decidedly non-intellectual young woman who grew up as something of a tomboy in the carefree home of her mother and loving stepfather. She knew little of her real father, other than the vague notion conveyed by her mother that he was a classical archaeologist who loved his work more than he loved them.
A series of coincidences, not the least of which was the notoriety that Sandy and her stepfather received after exploring a sunken treasure ship off the coast of Florida, results in her father, the brilliant but marginalized archaeologist, requesting her help in diving off the coast of the island of Thera in the Aegean Sea. Her initial reluctance at joining the imperious and coldly unemotional Professor Frederick gives way to the promise of adventure and the beauty of the Aegean. Frederick’s isolation within the community of classical scholars is due to his stubborn belief that the story of Atlantis was more than a myth in Plato, but rather a real place in historical time. Frederick’s belief that Thera was the origin of the Atlantis mythology was now being supported by recent scholarship regarding the 15th Century volcanic eruption of Thera and the destruction of the highly-evolved Minoan civilization on Crete.
Once re-united with her father on Thera, Sandy learns that her diving expertise is needed because Frederick believes an entire fleet of Minoan trading ships were sunk as they tried in vain to escape the fury of the erupting volcano some 3500 years before. She is also introduced to an array of island residents, including the inevitable young and handsome archaeologist, Jim Sanchez, who is working for Sir Christopher Penrose—her father’s scholarly rival. She also encounters two mysterious figures who appear to hold the native inhabitants of the island in a state of awe and fear. They are the mysterious “Colonel,” rumored to have been a German officer during World War II, and his constant companion, the flamboyant Madame Kore. Just as Sandy’s given name, Ariadne, refers to the legend of Theseus’ hunt for the Minotaur, made possible only with the aid Ariadne –the Sea King Minos’ daughter—so Kore was another name for Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of grain and vegetation, who was cursed to spend half the year in the underworld (winter) and half the year above ground with her mother during the growing season. The contemporary Ariadne (Sandy) was to find out, much to her horror, that her namesake was not only the daughter of the Sea King, but also a goddess of vegetation who died in the fall only to be reborn in the spring.
Earth tremors and rumblings from within the still-active volcano provide a sinister backdrop to the mysterious activities of Kore and her village followers—a group of women who seem to easily assimilate the teachings of Christianity with the old pagan gods. Adding to the unsettling sense of doom and danger that pervades the island and the archaeological investigations is the slowly unfolding history that seems to link the Colonel—who in fact is a retired German officer named Jurgen Keller—and Sandy’s father, as well as Sir Christopher and even the young Jim Sanchez. The link is the execution of a young archaeologist/spy and that event—more than thirty years in the past just as World War II was beginning—could result in more deaths on contemporary Thera.
Sandy/Ariadne is caught up in both mysteries as she tries to elude the clutches of village women who seem dedicated to resurrecting the ancient rituals of human sacrifice as propitiation to the gods, while at the same time struggling with the possibility that her father was responsible for the execution of the young archaeologist decades before—a young archaeologist who was Professor Frederick’s friend and comrade—and Jim Sanchez’s uncle!
As always, Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters delivers a great tale. Her expertise and ease with archaeological subject matter never fails to give a sense of reality to even the most romantic of stories. Three trowels for this wonderful little story of love, honor and redemption—as well as ancient myth, contemporary tragedy and archaeology!