Title: Blanca & Roja
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Release Date: October 9th 2018
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*
I’ve been enamored with Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing since her debut The Weight of Feathers. With each novel she has written, I have fallen even more in love, not with just her words but with her ability to weave together stories where sadness and hope, magic and reality meet as though they were two sides of the same coin. In Blanca & Roja, a novel inspired by the fairy tale Snow-White and Rose-Red, two sisters have grown up knowing that a bargain made by their ancestor means one day the los cisnes, the swans, will come to claim one of them as their own, as they have done with each generation of their family. Their love for one another has kept them from falling into the same trap sisters before them have, allowing the fear of being taken from this world to overpower their love for one another. The del Cisne girls have always been viewed by outsiders as something more akin to witches, these strange and unknowable sisters who live in the woods and whose very existence they blame whenever anything goes wrong in town. With each passing day los cisnes do not come to claim one of them, Blanca and Roja grow more confident that they have outsmarted them. But the swans are not to be cheated and when two boys disappear into the woods, they are inexplicable lured into a story that could break both them and the de Cisne sisters.
Blanca & Roja alternates between four different perspectives: the del Cisne sisters and the two boys whose stories collide with theirs. Blanca and Roja are as different as night and day. Blanca has always been viewed as the more gentle of the two, her golden hair and lighter skin have made it easier for her to move around in the world, for people to see her as otherworldly and blessed, rather than feared. She instinctively protects her younger sister, wanting to save her from being taken by los cisnes. Blanca has done her best to keep her sister close, to not allow any discord to grow between them. She’s tried to harden her edges, to make herself a little more like her sister while also helping Roja become softer, so when los cisnes comes to claim one of them, the sisters would be too much alike for the swans to lay claim to either. But her fear that Roja has already been marked as the “bad” sister leads her to decisions that will inevitably cause a rift between the two. Roja has never been an easy child. When she was younger her temper always got the better of her. Though prized by her father for her unwavering curiosity, there aren’t many others who’ve seen Roja as anything other than a foil to her sister. Unlike Blanca, Roja has all but accepted that she will be the sister taken. She knows that fairy tale stories are never about the darker of the two sisters, the one with brown skin and sharp edges. Both sisters are desperate to save the other, but secrets have a way of sowing distrust and when you grow up being told you are only allowed to be one thing while your sister is another, resentment inevitable follows.
This is as much Page Ashby and Barclay Holt’s story as it is the title characters’. Page is non-binary and has fought to claim himself in a world where everyone wants to attach one name to him and be done with it. Barclay becomes the first person to accept Page as he is, but it is Blanca who becomes the first person to ask. Page does not have a preference when it comes to pronouns, sometimes “he” feels right and sometimes “she” (McLemore uses both pronouns for Page throughout the novel), the most important thing for Page is that people don’t box him in. Page and Blanca are drawn to one another, but also doomed from the very beginning because like Roja, Page knows that people like him do not get to be princes in fairy tale stories. Barclay has grown up in a family where loyalty to your blood is placed above all else. When he ends up in the woods, he is trying to outrun the consequences of not holding fast to this mantra. He carries a secret that he isn’t quite ready to let out, lest everything he’s ever known to be true be destroyed. Unlike Page and Blanca’s relationship, Barclay and Roja are too rough around the edges to be taken with each other so readily. They navigate around each other like wounded wolves, afraid the other won’t or will make the first move.
Anna Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja has every element I’ve come to love about her novels. Her descriptions are lush, her storytelling skill unparalleled, and her ability to bring such nuanced characters to life keep me invested from page one.