I will admit that what drew me to this book, initially, was the cover. It's a beautiful, evocative painting of a woman with an artifact floating above her outstretched hands, and it looks very similar to the covers of Patricia McKillip's fantasy novels, which I adore.
Fortunately, Juliet Marillier has written a book that lives up to its cover, allowing readers to become as entranced with the story as they may have been with the lady on the front of the book.
Cybele's Secret is actually a book that teen fantasy fans would enjoy,because the protagonist, Paula, is a 17 year old girl from Transylvania traveling with her merchant father as an assistant, to trading missions all over the world. Their latest trading mission is to Istanbul, to purchase an ancient 'artefact' called "Cybele's Gift" which is rumored to have the power to bring lifelong good fortune to the owners. Paula and her sisters have had experience with magical artefacts and beings while young, when they discovered a door to the "Other Kingdom," a kind of fairy world where one sister, Tati, finds a mate and is doomed never to return to the real world to see her family.
Paula and her father discover, much to their dismay, that there is a great deal of competition for Cybele's Gift, not the least of which comes from a Pirate who has taken a fancy to Paula. Due to the dangers they face, Paula is allowed to hire a bodyguard, and she chooses an enormous young man named Stoyan to be her protector. A romantic sub plot ensues between the pirate, Stoyan and Paula that adds zing to the story, and there are enough mysteries, cryptic messages, riddles and a host of shady characters to make the plot move at a brisk pace.
Paula is a brave and intelligent young woman whose ambition to be a trader in books and manuscripts does her credit, but her naivete nearly gets her, and her father, killed by the head of a cult of Cybele who will stop at nothing to posses the magical statue. The journey through the Ottoman empire city of Istanbul/Constantinople was rich with historical detail, and yet was not so heavy-handed that it stalled the plot.
I also found the characters full-bodied and fascinating, particularly Paula and Stoyan, who were obviously meant for each other. Paula was so serious and yet so willing to trust the people she met, and care for them that my heart ached for her, because I knew that at least one 'friend' would eventually betray her. The peek into the world of trading during the Ottoman Empire was also interesting, and seeing how people lived, loved, made deals and tried to gain the upper hand in negotiations kept me turning pages into the wee hours.
I'd heartily recommend "Cybele's Secret" to older teens, about age 15 and up. If nothing else, it will make modern young women appreciate the freedoms that they enjoy, such as being able to read and write, go to college and marry whomever they choose.
This novel gets a solid A.