In The Door in the Mountain Caitlin Sweet's work ventures into new territory for the author in two ways: It is YA, and it is a Greek mythology retelling -- in this case, the myth of Theseus. Yet The Door in the Mountain is still recognizable as a spiritual successor to Sweet's intensely dark and adult The Pattern Scars, possessing a dark soul of its own. Perhaps the main difference is that rather than centering exclusively on the machinations of evil, The Door in the Mountain also follows Chara, a courageous slave girl who is allied with the prince Asterion -- the minotaur, and a persecuted hero in this retelling of the myth.
But it is in the scheming, selfish princess Ariadne that the dynamism of the book emerges, for all that Chara may be the heroine. Irredeemable as Ariadne is, she pulls the strings that make the story dance. Driven by consuming ambition, she maneuvers in ways that set the the heroes scurrying to defensive postures. Her subtly eroticized relationship with her father the king, and the way her desire for his attention draws her deeper into a well of sadism and horror, is reminiscent of The Pattern Scars -- another book in which eroticism and sadism intertwine, overseen by a male psychopath in a position of power.
Ariadne's torment, and her impetus to action, initially comes of her feelings of inferiority: of all her family, she is the only one who is not "godmarked" -- without the gift of a special power from the god. This torment is amplified by the birth of her brother Asterion, apple of their mother's eye, and an ostensible son of the god Poseidon. As Asterion grows into his power, he becomes the focus of Ariadne's repressed rage.
The most tragic character by far is Sweet's Icarus, whose godmark has been delivered only partially, in a grotesquely twisted manner: his power distorts his appearance, causes him great physical pain, and yet with all that -- he still can't fly. Coupling this failure with his helpless obsession with Ariadne, Icarus registers for the reader as the twist of a knife. His suffering both highlights the cruelty of Ariadne, who mocks it, and introduces the long shadow that haunts the book from its start, a shadow which grows until The Door in the Mountain, though not technically a horror novel, in its atmosphere veers close to one. The claustrophobia of the royal compounds where the drama plays out, and the capricious brutality of those in power, are unsettling in combination.
As in Sweet's earlier work, The Door in the Mountain is written with flawless technique, the world she creates textured with evocative sensual detail. It's difficult to judge this book without reading the sequel, as it feels like half a story, but readers looking for a dark reimagining of Greek myth -- and a chilling tale of twisted familial relationships -- need look no farther than this.