Review: “Radiant Darkness” by Emily Whitman

An overprotective and misanthropic mother, a rebellious teenage daughter, and a mysterious stranger with a purpose—this partly sums up the plot of Radiant Darkness, Emily Whitman’s debut young adult novel based on a famous Greek myth.  A colorful retelling of Greek mythology, Radiant Darkness has the limelight on a great love triangle.  Greek goddess Demeter once had a fateful union with Zeus, king of the gods, which ultimately resulted in Persephone, her beloved daughter.  This immortal’s unshakeable love and devotion to her only child was proven by the lengths to which she went to retrieve Persephone from Hades, ruler of the Underworld and god of the dead.  However, Whitman had a marvelous idea: what if Demeter’s attachment to her daughter wasn’t so selfless after all?  And what if Persephone chose to live with Hades out of her own free will?

The author makes a point to always take her characters’ motives into account, which turns into a rather ingenious interpretation of “The Rape of Proserpine.”  The author never reveals Persephone’s true parentage; in her version of the story, Demeter’s inclusive hatred of men strains her concern for Persephone with conditional love.  This develops later on into an oppressive grip on Persephone’s freedom and limits her choices.  Like the Greek deities described in Greek mythology, Whitman’s description of the Olympus council members ironically coincides with that of the Ancient Greeks.  She purposely demonstrates that these emblems of supernatural power are unbelievably worse than humans in their unaccountability for their actions and their general immorality.  This comparison can provoke laughter in its mockery of Greek mythology.  How could humans have conjured up such ridiculous idols to worship?

Zeus is a blatant womanizer, Demeter needs anger management therapy, and Hades is too hungry for power—do these sound like “celestial beings” or fallible humans?  The notion that the gods created humans in their own likeness receives serious blows of practical reasoning in Radiant Darkness, as Persephone herself finds out.  However, even though Whitman contemplates the differences between these so-called “deities” and the human race, it is obvious that her take on the myth does not focus so much on the abstract as on the essentials.  Persephone’s thoughtful first-person narration takes in so much from her surroundings and her love for plants; her difficult relationship with her mother and her complicated love for Hades parallel the constant struggle between life and death, mortality and immortality being the two main themes of Radiant Darkness.

Unfortunately, no details about Persephone’s childhood and adolescence mean that there is nothing that physically distinguishes immortals from mortals in the novel.  Individual powers and not dying are the only concepts that Whitman uses to outline the divinity of a god or goddess; the “aging process” is strangely disregarded, although the author mentions that Persephone’s physical appearance changes from girl to young woman and her abilities strengthen over time.  It is also a little disappointing that Whitman only illustrates some of the major deities of Greek mythology like Zeus, Hermes, and Hades, ignoring the rest.  Persephone herself is a creative character, loving passionately and thinking deeply.  Her love for Hades seems inexplicable at first, confusing and illogical.  Does she love this attractive god only because he is the first man she has ever met in her life?

However, a closer look will show that Whitman’s “love at first sight” scenario with Persephone and Hades is a dramatic reversal of the original myth’s love story.  If Persephone could learn to love Hades after he kidnapped her and imprisoned her in the Underworld, surely she could fall in love with this “selfish tyrant” in a moment before deciding to go to the Underworld as his queen.  It is here that the unconditional love Demeter never had for her daughter grows in Persephone for her husband, an unusual twist.

Moreover, Whitman’s transformation of the Underworld into a bright reflection of earth hints somehow at Plato’s dialogue about shadows and sunlight.  Sadly, justice has no place in this picture of heaven and hell; there are no judges to render punishment or reward to souls like in Greek mythology.  Equality reigns eternal over the dead, which is an unfair element in the concept of an afterlife.  Nonetheless, Hades himself poses as can be imagined: a rebellious character desiring more power and antagonistic toward Zeus.  This idea that Hades tries to fight back against his brother’s earlier treachery is intriguing.  In fact, Radiant Darkness frequently illuminates the power of free will and independence, using even the famous pomegranate seeds to promote self-reliance and have special meaning.

Radiant Darkness is not just a tale of love and war between immortals; it tells of people’s unjustified fears of mythical beings and the cruelty of this false sense of dependence, the ways that people take advantage of such emotions and use them to prove themselves superior to others.  It is a stunning representation of an ancient story that metamorphosed into a flowering coming-of-age tale set in ancient times.

Original review: Part 1: ‘Radiant Darkness’ has a more classic vision of Greek mythologyPart 2: ‘Radiant Darkness’ has a more classic vision of Greek mythologyPart 3: ‘Radiant Darkness’ has a more classic vision of Greek mythology,


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