Review: Bull by David Elliot

Hardcover, 189 pages
Published March 28th 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In Bull, author David Elliot lets his poetic wit wind through the famous labyrinth of ancient Crete, re-envisioning the myth of the Minotaur as a verse novel. The result is, in turns, driving, funny, heartbreaking, and edgy.

A blurb on the dust jacket proclaims that Bull gives Greek myth the treatment that Hamilton gave U.S. history, and that’s a decent way of putting it. Elliot’s rhythms have so much momentum the words were bursting from my mouth even when I was trying to read silently. There’s humor, present-day references, and even a few f-bombs. The bookstore where I bought it shelved it in “teen plus” but I think it’s perfectly suitable for high schoolers—or high school English teachers with a flair for theatrics and a unit on mythology.

Here’s a refresher on the Minotaur myth: Poseidon, the ocean god, helps Minos become King of Crete, but Minos later slights Poseidon so the god makes Queen Pasiphae lust for a bull. She ends up bearing Asterion, aka the bull-headed Minotaur. Eventually, Asterion/Minotaur is put in an underground labyrinth built by the engineer Daedalus. Unfortunate youths are sent into the labyrinth as sacrifices, until Theseus goes in and kills Asterion, getting out by following a helpful ball of thread from Asterion’s sister, Ariadne.

Bull rotates between the perspectives of all of these players but Poseidon steals the show. As a god, he’s the one influencing the events on Crete, and he’s also a sort of story manager for the reader (a bit like the Chorus in an ancient Greek play), framing events to come and clarifying what’s happened in previous scenes. It’s Ariadne’s twine that gets people through the labyrinth, but it’s Poseidon who guides us through the plot—and he had me laughing out loud. He might be a water-powered god, but he dishes some pretty solid burns. Even misunderstood Asterion, the soon-to-be monster, doesn’t escape Poseidon’s wit:

I’m glad that he’s reading,/ Because let’s face it: breeding/ Ain’t on his dance card.

Ouch!

Poseidon brings the most sass and crass to the story, but the other voices are also strong, especially Asterion, the Minotaur himself. Elliot very much puts the man in the monster, charting Asterion’s growth from bull-headed baby into a philosophical youth driven to madness once imprisoned in the underground labyrinth. The design of the book mimics Asterion’s descent into darkness: every page in his voice gets progressively darker, literally, so that by the end, his sections have white words on black paper. Once in the labyrinth, his lines also literally wind back and forth across the page. When not using these design elements, Elliot still gives the various character voices distinct flavours by using different poetic forms for each (and he breaks down his choices in an appendix at the end).

But the real strength of Bull is in the sheer momentum of the language, which Elliot builds through rhyme, consonance, and assonance. (I give particular props to rhyming barbarian/cesarean!) As soon as I read the prologue, I had to pause for a moment because I was smiling so much at the drive of the language:

There beneath the palace walls/ the monster rages, foams, bawls,/ calling out again and again,/ Mother!/ Mother!/ No other sound/ but the scrape/ of horn/ on stone,/ the grinding cranch of human bone/ under callused human foot.

There are too many gems like that for me to quote them all, but needless to say the wordsmithing is phenomenal and it’s easy to tear through the entire book in a single sitting of an hour or two.

Given how much momentum the language builds, I found the ending a bit abrupt. Once Asterion has been slain, we get an epilogue from Poseidon, but we do not see much reaction from the other characters. Given how distinct Elliot makes the personalities of Asterion’s family, I would have enjoyed seeing how Minos, Pasiphae, and Ariadne take his death through their own perspectives. However, in the spirit of the book’s fast pace, Elliot may have wanted to wrap things up quickly and it does make sense to finish with Asterion and Poseidon’s perspectives, since they are the most important players.

On the whole, Bull is a fun, fast, blistering read with strong form and distinct characters. The passages in this book are ones I would definitely recommend getting lost in!

Guest review by Russell F. Hirsch: Russell loves all things YA and lives in Vancouver, BC. He also blogs about books and films at russellfhirsch.com.

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