Think you know your Greek myths? Think again, and keep thinking, because Katee Robert’s Dark Olympus series is a twisted web that keeps getting twistier. Cruel Seduction, the fifth entry in the series, starts with a wedding, a shaky alliance . . . and a rabid populace that has just learned that they could potentially become powerful beyond measure if they’re willing to get their hands a little bloody.
The gods are here, but not quite in the way you might expect them: The modern city of Olympus is ruled by the Thirteen, who are headed by Zeus, but that’s not actually his name; it’s his title. All of the Thirteen are titles, and some of them were won fairly recently. The new Aphrodite, Eris Kasios, has only been in the position for about a year, but she’s been heavily involved in politics all her life as the daughter of the former Zeus and the sister of the current one. And the new Hephaestus, Theseus Vitalis, is an even more recent arrival who won the title by taking advantage of an obscure rule and killing his predecessor. The rest of the Thirteen have agreed not to end his life in retaliation, but only if he marries Aphrodite so they can gain some control over him.
Longtime fans of the series will appreciate the way Robert keeps raising the stakes. Tensions are cresting, and multiple assassination attempts, complex plots to undermine the city’s stability and hints of a dangerous new adversary lurking in the shadows create a palpable sense of impending doom. Mixed in with all of that is a heady, barbed romance full of lush encounters and sharp edges. Hephaestus and Aphrodite try to use sex to one-up and control each other, and things get heated in a hurry, especially when extra players join the game. Aphrodite seduces Hephaestus’ foster sister, Pandora, a calculated move that leads to a startlingly genuine connection. Meanwhile, Hephaestus is stunned to find himself bonding with—and falling for—Aphrodite’s ex, Adonis. The four characters come together in sensual detail in many permutations, and Robert contrasts the growing tenderness between them with the building chaos outside the bedroom.
If you like easy, escapist romances, this series may not be for you. In just about every way, Dark Olympus is a lot: a lot of varied, explicit sex, often with light BDSM elements; a lot of tense, violent conflict; and a whole lot of story to keep up with. Readers who haven’t read the first four books in the series will come in feeling like they’ve transferred schools as a high school senior, with three previous years of relationship sagas, messy in-group fighting, complex hookups and breakups, and gnarled family trees to sort through. But for those looking to experience something heated and dangerous, Cruel Seduction will be just right.
Marry Me by Midnight
The Cinderella story has been tackled from dozens of different angles. The Brothers Grimm took a crack at it, Rossini based an opera on it, the first film version dates back to 1899 and various remakes include multiple Disney versions, Jerry Lewis’ Cinderfella and plenty more besides. It’s a testament to the enduring strength of the story that there always seems to be another way to put a fresh spin on it. The latest is Felicia Grossman’s Marry Me by Midnight, a Jewish, genderswapped Cinderella set in 1832 London.
Grossman’s “prince” is Isabelle Lira, a Jewish heiress with marriage on her mind. Her father has recently died, and she aspires to honor his legacy by taking his position in his surety company. The problem is that the Berabs, her father’s partners, are threatening to upend the business if she does not agree to marry one of them. To get a better position at the bargaining table, she needs a husband who’s a force to be reckoned with. So Isabelle goes all out to find him, holding a series of three festivals and inviting all the eligible Jewish men in the community. To stack the deck in her favor, she decides to dig up some dirt on her potential suitors and hires Aaron Ellenberg to assist. This Cinderfella’s plight isn’t due to an evil stepmother, but rather a lack of family and resources. A poor orphan, Aaron works as a custodian at the synagogue, leading a quiet life until Isabelle sweeps in and changes everything.
It’s remarkable how genderswapping a story can totally shift the balance of power. Isabelle is as elite as any fairy-tale prince, and yet simply because she’s a woman, her husband hunt takes on a new and far more urgent tone. Likewise, Aaron, as a man, has much more agency than your typical Cinderella. He’s able to live independently, chart his own course, even contemplate the idea of starting over in America. But he faces a different kind of judgment, too, with his low social status treated as a personal failure rather than a result of his circumstances. Meanwhile, Grossman’s choice to set Aaron and Isabelle’s romance at a particularly delicate time for the Jewish community in the U.K.—when legislation was being debated that would eventually guarantee Jewish men the same rights as all English men—adds a special poignancy. For all the wealth and privilege that most of these characters possess, there’s still a sense of otherness, of striving for acceptance that might be coming . . . or might be delayed yet again. In this troubled atmosphere, Aaron and Isabelle’s decision to choose love, courage and kindness over everything else resonates that much louder and feels that much sweeter.