ARC Review: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

Title: Dark and Deepest Red
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Release Date: January 14th 2020
**I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review**

TW: contains a slur for Romani people

      “Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.
      Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.
      With McLemore’s signature lush prose, Dark and Deepest Red pairs the forbidding magic of a fairy tale with a modern story of passion and betrayal.”

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Anna-Marie McLemore’s latest novel, Dark and Deepest Red, is equal parts magical and horrifying as the novel shifts between two timelines where young women are caught in a never-ending dance, unable to stop. In 1518 Strasbourg, France, a fever takes hold of the residents. First it is a small group of women, fallen under a spell that compels them to dance. As the frenzy continues, some of these women begin to dance themselves to death. With each passing day, more are brought under the spell, losing themselves while their families become desperate for a cure. Lala and her aunt have done their best to blend into this small town, have hoped they have hidden their Romani heritage deep enough in order to escape persecution. But as the townspeople grow more desperate to put a stop to the sickness and find someone to blame, suspicions turn to those who’ve never quite fit in.

Five centuries later, “the glimmer” has once again fallen over the town of Briar Meadows. This strange phenomenon overcomes the town every year, bringing about both innocuous and life-changing magic. This year pairs of red shoes begin turning up, casting a kind of love magic on their wearers. For Rosella Oliva, donning these red shoes has unforeseen consequences. They take hold of her, refusing to let go, forcing her dance and putting her life in danger. The only person who might help is Emil, a boy who has done his best to tuck away the parts of himself that others in his town once whispered about. He’s closed himself off from his own history, like the story of his ancestors once being blamed for a dancing plague. But in order to help Rosella, Emil will have to reach across centuries to find the truth of what happen to those before him.

Dark and Deepest Red explores various marginalized identities and how these have influence the way characters move about the world. McLemore’s stories are always unapologetically brown and queer and this one is no exception. McLemore has a knack for forcing their characters to see beyond the surface, to splay themselves open and prod all those little things they keep hidden from the world. Much like the dancing plague, these characters have been forced into a kind of dance where they must deny a part of themselves. I loved how McLemore uses these biases and turns them on their head, allowing their characters to turn powerlessness into a moments of cunning and strength. The story is a reminder than even one small act of defiance can have a ripple effect, how one small act may not be small at all, but may have ramifications that transcend time.

Plenty of parallels can be drawn from the two timelines in Dark and Deepest Red. Lala has learned to make herself more gadjo, non-Romani, tucking parts of herself away and folding herself into the circle of young women in town who are looked upon with envy rather than suspicion. Her aunt and her have explained away their brown skin with rumors of Italian nobility. Their proximity to whiteness has become their only defense against the prejudice shown to their people throughout the region. But there is always danger in their very existence, as it is for the trans boy they took in years ago. Alifair’s almost mysterious appearance from the woods has never been fully explained, but Lala and her aunt made him family when he had none. Lala knows that while loving Alifair may always have been inevitable, her love for him might also be his downfall. Scenes between these two range from beautiful to heartbreaking and I’m always in awe of McLemore’s ability to write love stories that both devastate and uplift.

Rosella, like Lala, has discovered that in order to keep the people of Briar Meadows from treating her family as less than (at least more than they already do), she has to make herself more like the girls around her. She may not be able to hide her brown skin, but she can dress like them and talk like them. The only other person who ever understood what it was like to be othered in this town was Emil, but that was years ago when they were both children and understood their place in the world a little less. For Emil, keeping himself from his people’s history has been a way for him to protect himself. Rosella has always been a reminder of the things he was only beginning to realize as a child, that the town he called home was only ever going to look down at his family and their culture if he shared too much. I loved that their story isn’t just about each other, but about who they are individually in relation to their ethnic identities.

Anna-Marie McLemore’s Dark and Deepest Red fused magic and terror into an enthralling tale that will leave you breathless with its piercing truths.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

(5/5)

An Affair of Poisons by Addie Thorley

Title: An Affair of Poisons
Author: Addie Thorley
Series: N/A
Pages: 391
Publisher: Page Street Kids
Release Date: February 26th 2019

      “No one looks kindly on the killer of a king.
      After unwittingly helping her mother poison King Louis XIV, seventeen-year-old alchemist Mirabelle Monvoisin is forced to see her mother’s Shadow Society in a horrifying new light: they’re not heroes of the people, as they’ve always claimed to be, but murderers. Herself included. Mira tries to ease her guilt by brewing helpful curatives, but her hunger tonics and headache remedies cannot right past wrongs or save the dissenters her mother vows to purge.
      Royal bastard Josse de Bourbon is more kitchen boy than fils de France. But when the Shadow Society assassinates the Sun King and half of the royal court, he must become the prince he was never meant to be in order to save his injured sisters and the petulant dauphin. Forced to hide in the sewers beneath the city, Josse’s hope of reclaiming Paris seems impossible―until his path collides with Mirabelle’s.
      She’s a deadly poisoner. He’s a bastard prince. They are sworn enemies, yet they form a tenuous pact to unite the commoners and former nobility against the Shadow Society. But can a rebellion built on mistrust ever hope to succeed?”

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“These are not birds and butterflies like before, but winged dragons and three-headed serpents that are so much more threatening, so much more tangible. They roar and gnash their teeth as they slither through the clouds. From half a block away, I can see each glittering scale of crimson, green, and gold.”

Addie Thorley’s An Affair of Poisons while not necessarily the most groundbreaking historical fantasy, is nonetheless an enjoyable read with likable leads. Mirabelle has spent her life training to be an alchemist, hoping to earn a place in the Shadow Society. Her mother is leader of the Shadow Society, a organization built on helping the common people who are often neglected by the nobles. When Mira unknowingly concocts a poison used to assassinate the king of France, she is forced to see her mother and the society in a whole new light. She strikes an unlikely alliance with Josse, the bastard son of the king who is determined to protect his sisters no matter the cost. Together they must figure out a way to unite the commoners and nobility and overthrow the Shadow Society.

Thorley’s writes really descriptive writing that immediately had me falling into the story. While An Affair of Poisons has a historical backdrop (though the author does take political license), it is the combination of poison-making and magic that make this world so captivating. From healing tonics used to stave hunger pains to a poison called Viper’s Venom meant to make a person’s death slow and agonizing, the practice of alchemy can be used for good or terrible evil. There is also a magical element to this world that I wished had been explored more. Mira helps enhance the magic of one of the members of the Shadow Society, making his illusions corporeal and his magic even more dangerous than before. Unfortunately, the novel sort of dances around how Mira was able to do this and I was surprised that although we get a lot of detail when it comes to her making poisons, this portion of the novel isn’t delved into deeper.

Mira spends most of the novel struggling between what is right and what she’s been taught. She’s always been under the impression that the Shadow Society stood for the people first and foremost. I loved her journey as she finds an identity apart from her mother and embraces a different path. My only issue is that Mira spends so much of her life navigating her mother’s callousness, including how she withholds approval from both her daughters, turning them into rivals that compete for her attention. Yet it takes Mira far too long to accept that her mother is more interested in power than in taking care of commoners. I really enjoyed Josse’s character. Being a bastard son of a king, he has never had the same kind of privileges as his brother, the heir. Still, I love that Thorley has Josse confronting his own privilege. While he has been relegated to working in the kitchens, he still has never gone hungry and even though he hasn’t taken advantage of it, has had opportunities to better himself. There are so many different familial relationships in this one, but I loved that each one was so complex and so important to each character’s arc.

Addie Thorley’s An Affair of Poisons is a promising debut that’s fast-paced and perfect for those who enjoy historical fiction with a touch of fantasy.

★★★

(3/5)

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Title: Dread Nation
Author: Justina Ireland
Series: Dread Nation, #1
Pages: 464
Publisher: Blazer + Bray
Release Date: April 3rd 2018

      “Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
      But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.”

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“The trick is not to think of them as regular folks. When you do that, your emotions get all tangled up. You start to wonder whether it’s right or wrong and what kind of person that makes you for taking their life, whatever kind of existence it may be. Your brain starts doubting, and those second thoughts can get you killed.”

Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation reimagines the end of the Civil War not with the surrender of the Confederate Army, but with the rising of the dead. Facing its greatest threat, the government passes the Native and Negro Reedcation Act, forcing Native and black children into schools where they train to fight the undead. Jane has grown up in a world where shamblers are a constant threat. As a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat, she has developed the necessary skills to survive a fight with a shambler. While she should be hoping to be hired as an Attendent for a rich, white family, all she really wants is to return home to her mother whom she hasn’t seen in years. When Jane reluctantly lends a hand to an old friend in finding his sister, she stumbles upon a scheme that will take her even farther from home, to a place where those in charge will do anything to keep their secrets hidden.

Ireland manages to be both creative and realistic in her world-building. Though shamblers have reshaped the country, the fundamentals of white supremacy still ring true. In towns like Baltimore, affluent families enjoy a degree of safety not afforded to others. They would rather pretend that the shambler threat exists elsewhere and that their city couldn’t possibly be overrun. Though slavery has been abolished, it is still black bodies being put on the front lines, valued less for their ability to fight the undead and more for their expendability. While some white folks are willing to move forward and embrace an age where black and white people could work together, there are factions that still believe certain races are inherently superior to others. When you combine this with religious fervor and unchecked power, the results are devastating.

I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether Ireland’s writing shines brightest in her world-building or her creation of a character that feels as real as the paper she’s printed on. Jane’s narration is one of the most genuine that I’ve come across. The more I read, the more I gained an appreciation for the character and Ireland’s ability to make every thought and piece of a dialogue feel both deliberate and authentic. I loved that Jane manages to be delightful both in her negative and positive attributes. Ireland never side-steps the protagonist’s flaws, but rather let’s her be petty and reckless in the moments that make sense for her character. This means Jane feels more real and readers get an honest glimpse at who she is rather than what the author just wants you to see.

There are several minor character who I grew to appreciate. Jane’s schoolmate Katherine starts off as a foil to Jane, but by the end of the novel there is an earned respect and camaraderie between the two. I did want to see more of Jackson, Jane’s once-upon-a-time romantic interest. It’s hard not to see how he might have charmed her and I’m greedily curious to know more about their lawless escapades. Like Jane, I am also very curious about Mr. Gideon, a bright young inventor who also understand what it means to play the long game against a more powerful opponent. 

Ireland’s Dead Nation is like nothing I’ve ever read. It takes a tired zombie trope and gives it a fresh new look. It’s insightful and provocative as it juxtaposes a population who longs for the glory days of a prosperous America with one that has only been used as stepladder for the other’s triumphs.

5/5

★★★★★

Mini Reviews: Hunting Prince Dracula + And the Trees Crept In

MiniHello, friends fiends (see what I did there?). It’s been a while since I posted a set of mini-reviews. I’ve been busy reading creepy books this month (I’m excited for Halloween, can you tell I’m excited for Halloween?) and so it’s only appropriate to pair these two together for mini-reviews. Hope you enjoy. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Hunting Prince Dracula
Author: Kerri Maniscalco
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper, #2
Pages: 434
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Release Date: September 19th 2017 

      “In this New York Times bestselling sequel to Kerri Maniscalco’s haunting #1 debut Stalking Jack the Ripper, bizarre murders are discovered in the castle of Prince Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracula. Could it be a copycat killer…or has the depraved prince been brought back to life?
      Following the grief and horror of her discovery of Jack the Ripper’s true identity, Audrey Rose Wadsworth has no choice but to flee London and its memories. Together with the arrogant yet charming Thomas Cresswell, she journeys to the dark heart of Romania, home to one of Europe’s best schools of forensic medicine…and to another notorious killer, Vlad the Impaler, whose thirst for blood became legend.

      But her life’s dream is soon tainted by blood-soaked discoveries in the halls of the school’s forbidding castle, and Audrey Rose is compelled to investigate the strangely familiar murders. What she finds brings all her terrifying fears to life once again.

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“Chills invaded the cracks of my emotional armor, sliding their icy fingers along my skin. I gave in to their prodding and shivered in the waning morning light.”

Kerri Maniscalco’s Hunting Prince Dracula is an action-packed historical thriller that had me guessing at every turn. Audrey Rose Wadsworth and Thomas Cresswell are quickly becoming one of my favorite literary pairs. Their relationship continues to evolve in this one and I really liked how the author balances this with both characters learning important lessons about themselves as well. Audrey Rose is still haunted by the events from the first book and isn’t sure she still has what it takes to pursue a career in forensic studies. Thomas is concerned for her well-being and often oversteps, but I love how assertive Audrey Rose is with both him and her new classmates at the Academy of Forensic Medicine and Science. Thomas was a bit of an enigma in the first book, so I was happy to see him get backstory as well as becoming acquainted with his sister in this one. The majority of the novel takes place at Bran Castle and I loved the dark and dreary descriptions. The eerie atmosphere and murderous mystery is reminiscent of Gothic literature and made a perfect read for October.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: And the Trees Crept In
Author: Dawn Kurtagich
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 6th 2017

      “Stay away from the woods…
      When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the manor is cursed. The endless creaking of the house at night and the eerie stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too—questions that Silla can’t ignore: Why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer? Who is the beautiful boy who’s appeared from the woods? And who is the tall man with no eyes who Nori plays with in the basement at night… a man no one else can see?

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“The terror is like a foghorn in the darkness. Like a spotlight pointed at me, notifying the monsters of the world exactly where I am: exposed, armorless. ”

Dawn Kurtagich’s And the Trees Crept In is a novel I’ve really been looking forward to this October. Like Kurtagich’s previous novel, The Dead House, Kurtagich’s uses various methods to tell her story. There’s first person narration, diary entries, and flash backs. All these work together to bring the reader into the story and the mystery of La Baume, the home of Silla and Nori’s aunt. The story opens with Silla and Nori arriving at their aunt’s doorstep in search of refuge. We quickly learn that both these girls have been on the receiving end of their father’s violent outbursts and while little Nori’s wounds are very visible, Silla’s injuries are more emotional and psychological. As their aunt’s behavior grows more and more erratic, Silla begins to suspect that there is more to La Baume and the surrounding woods. Her aunt speaks of the Creeper Man, lying in wait for any who may enter Python Wood. I really liked the growing tension in this book and in many ways it’s more of a psychological thriller than a horror novel. Silla is tormented by the isolation of the house, the lack of food for her and her sister, and unexplained behavior of her aunt. And the Trees Crept In isn’t a perfect horror novel. I liked the beginning more than the latter part of the story. At times it felt a little too long and the ending is cliché, but if you’re looking for a novel that might make you think twice before walking down the hall in the dark, then this is one you’ll want to check out.

Rating: 3/5

★★★