In the beginning was the darkness, and in the darkness was a girl, and in the girl was a secret…
In the domed city of Yuan, the blind Princess Isra, a Smooth Skin, is raised to be a human sacrifice whose death will ensure her city’s vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a mutant beast, fights to save his people, the Monstrous, from starvation. Neither dreams that together, they could return balance to both their worlds.
Isra wants to help the city’s Banished people, second-class citizens despised for possessing Monstrous traits. But after she enlists the aid of her prisoner, Gem, who has been captured while trying to steal Yuan’s enchanted roses, she begins to care for him, and to question everything she has been brought up to believe.
As secrets are revealed and Isra’s sight, which vanished during her childhood, returned, Isra will have to choose between duty to her people and the beast she has come to love.
You can read an excerpt here.
Honestly, my feelings about this book are so mixed I hardly know what to think.
So let’s start with the good: there were some very, very cool ideas to be found in this book, with its sci-fi tinged fantasy world, where curses and magic go hand in hand with culture wars and a gaping socio-economic divide, and I loved the otherwordly fairy tale air to it all. And yet – and already we start with the contradictions – I also found myself dissatisfied with everything I just applauded, because part and parcel it all failed to reach its full potential, which made for a very frustrating reading experience – and yet, even saying that, I still appreciated it for what it was. Confusing, no?
So to better explain my mixed response to this book, I give you Exhibit A: the prologue. And the thing about the prologue is, I absolutely loved it. I loved the fairy tale air of mystery and wonder, and how it flirted with an almost Robin McKinley like ambiance, and I was truly stoked to read this book when I finished it. But then, as I continued on with the story, I found myself growing more and more frustrated with that very same prologue I so loved, because the prologue actually puts the reader about five miles ahead of the protagonists, and it basically takes the entire book for Gem and Isra to figure out what we’ve already been told – which, as you can imagine, undermines a huge swathe of the tension and drive of the story. And so I found myself wondering if the story wouldn’t have been far better served without the prologue – and yet, in the end, the prologue was still my favorite part of the book, and a large part of why I kept reading until the end. So…yeah.
But it wasn’t just the prologue (and so by extension, the underlying mystery) that left me so muddled by contradictory feelings – I also found myself equally torn about the characters themselves. And so I give you Exhibit B: Isra’s blindness, a trait which largely defined her character at the start – and at first blush, I found it really interesting. I loved how it fueled her rebellion yet made her vulnerable to exploitation, and how her weakness was her strength and her strength her weakness – and I really loved the plot twist that came out of it – and yet, at the same time, I also found myself growing more and more frustrated with how the book played it all out, because at one point the story essentially waves a magic wand to make everything alright again, make it all better, and in my opinion that did a HUGE disservice to Isra’s character. By undercutting her character struggle – and thereby defusing the emotional fallout and undermining her character growth – it just flatlined her personal arc, and so all we’re left with is a stereotypical YA romance heroine, defined entirely by Her Man – which was frustrating, to say the least.
And now we’ve come to Exhibit C in The Case of Conflicting Reactions: the romance. Frankly, in this type of star-crossed-lovers story, the romance needs to sizzle – it has to be the linchpin, the foundation, the concrete; only in this story, it ended up feeling more like Elmer’s glue. And once again, I found myself torn: I liked the idea of it all – I liked how the prejudices on both sides clouded their judgement, and how they had to struggle to overcome their cultural conditioning, and I particularly liked how they manipulated, lied to, and generally played each other – but I also was frustrated in that they both just felt so…bland. As I said above, Isra’s character became less interesting to me as the book progressed, and sadly, Gem’s personality was pretty one dimensional – and worse, the immediate co-dependence that springs up between them undermines both characters further. I mean, at one point Isra is pretty much totally helpless unless Gem tells her what to do – and at the point, I just had no vital interest left. So while there was nothing overtly wrong with the pairing – their situation is certainly suitably epic, and the story goes through all the motions well enough, with plenty of lovelorn gazing and hand-holding and “I trust you” moments – it all just lacked character. And of course, none of this is helped by the fact that, as the entire plot revolves around a play on Love Will Save Us All (as the prologue tells us), we pretty much feel zero tension when it comes to the relationship, because we know Love Will Save Them All. And so, instead of a fraught, tense, situation where I was sucked in by the chemistry and rooting for the couple, genuinely fearing they might fall apart, I was just not feeling it – but even so, I didn’t hate it, and I was generally interested enough to see it through to the end.
So what, then, to make of this book? All in all it played me like a game of Twister, to the point where I hardly know what to think – after all, everything I liked, I didn’t like, and everything I didn’t like, I had reasons to sort of like, or at least want to like, because there were cool ideas in there somewhere. Really in the end I find myself certain only of my confused disappointment, so make of that what you will.
Byrt Grade: B
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
Uneven worldbuilding, a sometimes rocky plot and an unbelievably fantastical ending take away from this engrossing tale.
There are definitely both pros and cons to the story, but ultimately I was engrossed in a satisfying way as I read this one.