If Lin Manuel Miranda, Rick Riordan, and Ernest Cline had a baby together it would be Bull by David Elliott (and that combination is still not as weird as the Minotaur’s actual parentage. So.).
The original myth that includes the Minotaur is focused on Theseus, the hero from Athens and Ariadne, the princess of Crete, who falls in love with him. Theseus goes to Crete because he is determined to kill the monster of the labyrinth, the Minotaur that kills 14 Athenians every 7 years (or every year depending on the version). I discussed the Minotaur in one of the Percy Jackson monster recap posts.
I love mythological retellings, and I’ve read a lot of them, but Bull was a wild, imaginative, and very weird ride, even by my standards. It retold a very old story, but delivered a fresh tale via some really great twists.
First of all, it retells the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of the half-man, half-bull monster – named Asterion, “Ruler of the Stars,” by his mother, and called the Minotaur by his stepfather, who is revolted by the way Asterion was conceived. It was an excellent choice to explore this character in an empathetic way, turning him into a tragic character that loved and could love others. Through Asterion’s story, the book highlights how humans can be monsters and how monsters can be human.
Other characters get their speaking moments as well: King Minos and his daughter Ariadne, supporting characters from the myth, are here; there are point-of-view sections from Minos’ wife Pasiphae (the Minotaur’s mom), and god of the sea Poseidon. All of the characters take their turns narrating the story, but only Poseidon gets to see everything at once, and perhaps influence events as he sees fit.
Am I right or am I right?
That bum Minos deserved what he got.
I mean, I may be a god, but I’m not
Unreasonable, and when I am, so
-Poseidon’s opening lines in Bull
Second, it uses a variety of poetical styles to capture each of the characters. There’s a nice afterword where the author talks in detail about each poetical mode he chose for each character and why, but they also tend to use different language. Poseidon generally uses more slang and profanity, for example. Other characters sound more formal or more childlike. Pasiphae, the queen, who gets knocked up by the bull, has some really beautiful sections early on, but as the story goes on her lines show how the entire situation is affecting her mind.
I know what I
know I know what
I see none of you
is that different
-Pasiphae, in response to her critics
Pasiphae’s daughter, Ariadne, also gets some great sections in this book. Ariadne is one of my all-time favorite mythological characters, and she gets a good gig in Bull, although not a lot of closure (SEQUEL, DAVID ELLIOTT??? SEQUEL???).
Until then, I’ll be demure.
Charming! Sweeter than sugar!
The perfect little princess!
No more and no fucking less.
-Ariadne, discussing her plans for freedom for herself and her half-brother
I love her.
Thirdly, Bull includes more than just the basic Theseus-and-Minotaur story. Besides going into the reasons for why Poseidon takes a disliking to Minos and Pasiphae, and giving some insights into the Minotaur’s sad childhood, it also combines elements of Daedalus and Icarus into the story. Daedalus is a genius inventor in Greek myth, and is most famous for his labyrinth (created to hold the Minotaur) and his wings (made in order to help Daedalus and his son escape from King Minos, who is keeping them prisoner as his pet inventors). I really liked how Bull interwove a lot of Daedalus’ story with Asterion’s. It also looked at Theseus from a different angle, and personally I found it refreshing to have Theseus relegated to a second-tier status, existing only as a deluded bully and villain. I have never been a huge fan of Theseus, can you tell?
I do have some criticisms. The ending is very abrupt and doesn’t have much closure for pretty much anyone except Asterion. The female characters have an especially rough time: Pasiphae and Ariadne start out as really excellent characters, but the story can only end in tragedy if their agency is completely destroyed, and once it is, their personal tragedies fade into the background of the primary tragedy of Asterion. I mean, I understand, because the book is named after the Minotaur and it’s about him, but it left the book weaker and less-fleshed out than it could have been.
On the whole, Bull was entertaining and thoughtful. Even more important, Bull made a fantastic character out of one of the oldest villains. Asterion was likable, but flawed, and doomed.
One day my fate will change.
Till then, I’ll cope
with whatever plans Minos has for me.
So bring it on, O king!
I’ll play my part!
A work of genius!
A masterpiece of Melpomene’s art.
Or is it Thalia’s play? A slapstick comedy.
Whichever, catastrophe or farce,
The script, I think, needs to be improved:
I wear a mask that cannot be removed.