Hi guys! I’ve been a little slack with reviews lately/struggling to get in a good enough mindset to properly construct them, so most of my reviews have been coming much too late, and have been a little topsy-turvy and all over the place. So, today, I’m going to be throwing up some flash reviews for City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab, and As I Descended by Robin Talley. This isn’t because I think that either book deserves any less attention than the rest of the books, but mostly just because I’ve gotten a little behind on my reviewing, and I don’t want to keep falling into this rabbit hole of playing catch up!
CITY OF GHOSTS by VICTORIA SCHWAB
“Cassidy Blake’s parents are The Inspecters, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.
When The Inspecters head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn’t sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn’t belong in her world. Cassidy’s powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.”
I really enjoyed this book! I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about Victoria Schwab and, as someone who often struggles with fantasy and paranormal books, I’ve always been a little nervous to take a dive into her books, never quite knowing where to start. With that said, Becca gifted me this towards the end of last year, insisting that it was the perfect level of spooky, with a hell of a lot of cute mingled in between. And my goodness, she was absolutely right!
City of Ghosts was such a joyous read, and I found myself so increasingly attached to both Cassidy and her ghostly friend Jacob! Then, with Lara thrown in the mix, we’ve got such a delightful mix of endearing and captivating characters; all of whom I loved.
As a Harry Potter fan, I really appreciated all the references dotted through the book (with 8 in total), and I found Cassidy’s love of the series extremely relatable. I’m not entirely sure if this was meant to be a direct parallel or not, and I’m not under any sort of pretence that JK Rowling invented the veil, nor the concept behind it, however, with the veil being such a core part of the story – and with other such terms existing, yet this one being Schwab’s own personal choice to go with – I did enjoy the fact that Cassidy specifically calls back to the fifth book in the series – Order of the Phoenix – which is in particular known for its own use of the veil. I enjoyed the parallels – deliberate or not – between Cassidy’s own experiences, vs the knowledge we have of Rowling’s veil, the way that it connects the living – and, more specifically, those who have had their own, personal brushes with death – to the other side. I felt as though there’s a great discussion to be had over what felt like a distinct comparison between the voices that Harry and Luna hears on the other side, vs the way that it calls out to Cassidy and Lara in this book. Regardless of intent, I still enjoyed the contrast between this book and the Harry Potter series, especially with Cassidy being such a fan.
I loved the relationship between Cassidy and Jacob, as well as the dynamics between the three of them when Lara comes into the picture; her relationships with, and consideration of, the two of them are vastly different. I want to keep this recap as spoiler-free as I can, and so I won’t focus too heavily on all the details, but I do think that Schwab done a really excellent job of setting up the sequel in a way that I hadn’t expected. Had this story been a stand alone, I would have been content, with all the holes and all the necessary plot points having been wrapped up, but knowing that there is a sequel yet to be released, and knowing that there is more to come from Cassidy and Jacob, and a chance at exploring their lives a little further and discovering new details about the ghost-world has me thrilled beyond belief, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store.
I thought this was deliciously creepy in all the right ways, without being too terrifying for anybody who might be of a nervous disposition. It had a lot of heart, and the passion and the relationships that are built up through the course of the story were all so endearing, and I really don’t have a bad word to say about any of it. I enjoyed the villain of the story, even going so far as to see a little symmetry between her and The Woman In Black (another franchise that featured Daniel Radcliffe, go figure!), and I thought that Schwab executed the whole story brilliantly. In between the more eerie aspects of the book, there was a lot of light, with tender moments shared between Jacob and Cassidy, as well as a witty relationship between the two with a lot of banter to keep the tone light and fun! And, to be honest, as a Brit I particularly enjoyed Cassidy’s constant state of bewilderment at some of the more British customs that she wouldn’t be as well acquainted to, showing the juxtaposition between British and American culture. Schwab made a great attempt at showing the difference between her own culture and ours, and with this particular book taking place in Scotland specifically, I really enjoyed all the little jokes and quips as Cassidy tried to adjust to her new surroundings; a feeling that even the rest of the UK is quite familiar with when venturing onto Scottish soil. I am absolutely going to be checking out the sequel, and it’s definitely given me an incentive to look into reading more of her books, too!
AS I DESCENDED by ROBIN TALLEY
“‘Something wicked this way comes.’
Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them.
Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.
Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world with a pointed look, or a carefully placed word.
But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to make their dreams come true. And the first step is unseating Delilah for the Kingsley Prize. The full scholarship, awarded to Maria, will lock in her attendance at Stanford―and four more years in a shared dorm room with Lily.
Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school.
But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.”
This is a difficult book to review, so I’m just going to start off by being brutally honest and say that I really did not enjoy it. I’m not pleased by this development, but it is what it is. I went into it with such high hopes, having heard wondrous things about Robin Talley (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts), and I was beyond disappointed. I read this book as a part of a buddy read with my absolutely gorgeous friend Jenny, and I’d be lying if I said our chats weren’t filled with an endless string of expletives and sheer outrage.
I’ll start off by quickly listing off some of (if not all; there are so many that I genuinely lost track) the content/trigger warnings that readers might need before diving in:
- references to slavery
- homophobic slurs
- characters being outed
- self harm
As I Descended is a Macbeth retelling, with a wide array of main and supporting characters representing countless marginalised groups, the vast majority of whom were characters of colour, members of the LGBT+ community, and even a disabled character in the form of our Lady Macbeth. I’ve heard wonderful things about how inclusive Robin Talley’s books are, and that was definitely one of the motivating factors for me picking this book up. I’d been eager to check out some of her work, and when I heard the words WLW Macbeth retelling I was immediately sold. With that in mind, however, I really do regret picking this book up.
I’m going try not to go too in depth into this review, and all of my issues with the book, as I am actually hoping – at some stage – to do a bit of a more, in-depth discussion on Talley, her writing, as well as other diverse writers in a later post (hopefully with a little insight from Jenny, should she feel so inclined!). But, what I will say, is that it’s worth all of us remembering that not all rep is good rep, and that writers and readers should absolutely approach these situations with far more caution and care. I understand how important it is to be inclusive, and to ensure that you’re doing something, anything, to make sure that people feel seen, and that readers are represented regardless of their identities, but if your intent is to put these characters and their identity (whether it be their race, disability, gender, sexuality, and such forth) at the forefront of your story, then it is so important to make sure you’re actually doing enough research, and making the effort to actually tell these stories right and in a healthy way. All of the representation in this book fell into the tired trope of stereotyping LGBT+ people and people of colour, as well as those with disabilities – with instances such as lesbian and bisexual characters being referenced as being too uptight to like pussy, or not gay enough to be a member of the gay/straight alliance; able bodied characters throwing around presumptions such as aren’t all disabled people shy?; and our white characters endlessly calling back to their slave-trader relatives, and acknowledging their friends of colour’s presence at their school by saying that, all those years ago, they wouldn’t have been seen there without a pricetag.
Triggers happen, sometimes, and we come across them from time to time. The same goes for disdainful characters, and terrible people – even when they’re not villains! – and I absolutely understand and respect that not everything is black and white, no character is simply good or bad, and that everybody is flawed. Sometimes we are going to read things that make us uncomfortable, or stumble across a narrative that doesn’t necessarily correlate with our own views; that’s perfectly fine. That’s the beauty of reading, of creating, and absorbing media. We are entering an entirely new world, and what a character says or does is not a direct reflection of what the writer thinks or believes, so by no means am I looking to cause any upset by calling out the issues I had with this book, not by a long shot, and I’m not certainly not trying to point fingers or make any accusations. Having said that, though, I do think that the narrative of this entire book was unimaginably misguided, and I found myself absolutely seething with rage with each page that I turned. There wasn’t a single character that I liked or could warm to, and there was absolutely no instance in which even the supposed heroes of this book came across as endearing or, indeed, heroic. The sheer racist, abelist, queerphobic, and just all around ignorant rhetoric that this book forced was beyond nauseating, and it never felt like an instance of ‘this is just one character’s thoughts’, because there wasn’t a single character – protagonists and antagonists alike – who didn’t share the same, hate-filled narrative, and there wasn’t a single chapter where this ignorance was absent. I understand that these are high-school age students, and that we all say/do things that are, often, very naïve and ignorant from a young age, but with that in mind it’s still worth noting that there is a line that needs to be drawn, and if you are writing books that are aimed at marginalised groups and your intent is to help minorities feel seen, then it’s perhaps not the greatest idea in the world to constantly attack those very same groups within your writing. The consistent references to their school being situated on the grounds of an ex-plantation, and the frequency with which we’re reminded that the vast majority of these characters are either descended from slaves or slave traders, with absolutely no relevance to the plot, and no repercussions for some of the vile implications within the narrative, it was hard to comprehend whether Talley just didn’t know how to correctly approach such a topic, or if she was just looking for a little shock-factor by being edgy and controversial in talking about something so obviously heinous. There’s even a mention, in the epilogue of the book, where one of the final, surviving characters reflects upon their own behaviour, as well as that of other characters, and acts as if the blatant ignorance, manipulation, and just straight up bigotry that happened throughout the course of this book was merely just a result of teenagers being teenagers, which felt like a wildly inappropriate and mind-boggling message to send.
I definitely have a lot more to say on this book, and Talley’s writing as a whole, but I think I’m going to cut it here and just say that I absolutely didn’t enjoy this book, and I can’t see myself picking up another one of her books in the future, unfortunately. I’m really sad to say it, but it made me increasingly uncomfortable, with absolutely no perks.
Also, worth mentioning: the actual Macbeth aspects of this book were sorely lacking, and I can’t even give her bonus points for a decent, accurate adaptation, because she wildly missed the mark there, too.
Both of these books helped contribute to my Beat the Blacklist challenge for this year, not to mention they both fell into some of the earlier challenges that I set myself at the start of the year. While it wasn’t loudly noted, one of the things I really wanted to do this year was to read more books that my friends have adored, something that I managed to achieve in reading City of Ghosts. The absolutely darling Becca bought this for me last year for my birthday, and not only did it come highly recommended by her, but I found myself absolutely gushing once I finally did get stuck in. I loved it, and I’m so happy that she wanted to share this gem with me! As well as being a book that a friend loved, Lara’s ethnicity was also referenced countless times, and though she wasn’t the main character, she was a pretty core part of the story and cropped up in a pretty great chunk of the book, so it was great seeing that additional bit of rep!
As I Descended fits quite neatly into my retellings challenge, as I had been desperately hoping to read more adaptations and retellings this year, and have luckily found myself a little spoilt for choice! The other thing worth noting is that it was one of the books I had referenced at the start of the year for my attempts to read more WLW fiction. As well as featuring an array of LGBT+ rep, it also fit into my challenge for reading more books with characters of colour; though I think it’s fair to say after the above review that, though the representation was there, it certainly wasn’t good.