Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!
What it’s about: Fancy and Kit Cordelle grew up in, Portero, a strange town of monsters and magic portals, with a serial killer for a father. It’s no surprise they turned out with a bloodthirsty streak. Together they experience first love, the pain of growing up, and the challenge of getting away with murder.
Praise: First of all, both Portero and the plot are delightfully original. The tone is I think best described as Gothic Lolita with a Southern twist. I loved that, because I’m a macabre little bastard.
I also enjoyed Dia Reeves’ prose style. It hits a perfect balance of vivid and descriptive, but not too flowery. She has a knack for metaphors and similes. It’s hard to find comparisons that are original, but conjure up an immediate picture. She manages it over and over again.
Criticism: For me, characters are key to my enjoyment of a book, and these protagonists weren’t… well, they weren’t any of the things I would have liked them to be. I love characters who struggle against their inner demons. I love dark and twisted characters who utterly lack the moral impulses we all take for granted. Kit and Fancy are heartless sociopaths about eighty percent of the time, but the other twenty don’t reveal a surprising soft side, or intriguing character arc. They feel more like the author forgot her characters are devoid of empathy.
Fancy, the narrator, is particularly inconsistent. Her lack of empathy isn’t the only trait the author forgets. In one scene, Fancy speaks to someone who is not her mother or sister. Every other character is shocked, because Fancy never speaks.
I didn’t know that. In no other scene did she come across as abnormally quiet. Rather, she seemed like a normal shy girl who likes letting her talkative sister dominate the conversation.
And in several more scenes, she breaks her habitual silence. And everyone comments, immediately reminding me that she has just violated a character trait for the second, third, fourth time. In most of these scenes, the events don’t feel like character development, because I wasn’t even clear on why Fancy doesn’t normally talk to people. Shyness? Selective mutism? Misanthropy?
An example that illustrates both inconsistencies; Fancy is rescued from a Portero monster by a Mortmaine, which I guess is a kind of police officer? But for monsters? They wear green, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Fancy thanks them. Why? Fancy doesn’t talk to people, Fancy doesn’t like people, and Fancy is not polite. Yet the explanation we are given is that saying nothing makes her feel rude Why does she care? It isn’t necessary to the plot. In fact, it never comes up again, and I only remember it because it struck me as a perfect example of the kind of inconsistent characterization that made Fancy feel lifeless to me.
Or, perhaps not lifeless. For those of you who write yourself, you know when you have a plan for a story but the character in your head comes to life and rebels? It feels like Dia Reeves wanted Fancy to be one thing, and Fancy herself wanted to be someone else. As a reader I didn’t know what to want for her because I couldn’t tell which version was the real one.
I also thought Portero, a fascinating concept, was a bit wasted in this story. It is rife with monsters, yet monsters never impact the plot in a serious way. Cultural differences between Portero and the rest of the world are mentioned, but the only one that ever comes up more than once is that Portero citizens, or Porterenes, always wear black. This is frustrating, because so many more interesting elements are raised then ignore. For example; every Porterene carries a silver key, given to them at birth by their immortal mayor. Are they used for anything? Nope. Are there other immortals? Apparently not. How does the outside world deal with the existence of an immortal? How does this affect elections, term limits, legislation? I dunno.
There’s something wonderful about a story with details that exist simply to flesh out the world, without being used in the plot. But that can be taken too far. My interest kept being piqued and then ignored, which left me with a nebulous grumpiness. Not only are Chekhov’s guns left unfired, but even superficial details are established and abandoned at random. In one scene, it’s mentioned that severed heads are so common children play with them in the street. But severed heads and the corpses they come from are never described again. Nor are street cleaners sweeping up stray fingers or juvenile delinquents cleaning up blood splatter as community service, or anything else that would make this feel like a society where gore is the norm.
In fact, many scenes would play better if this story took place in an ordinary town. They use magic to dispose of the evidence of their crimes. When someone witnesses that magic, Kit reassures Fancy that they won’t tell, because they know nobody would believe them. That would work in any town, except one with an immortal mayor, daily monster attacks and a police force that actually specializes in magic.
Also, a content warning; childhood sexual abuse is mentioned for a few side characters. It isn’t described in detail, but this is a story that otherwise doesn’t take other traumas very seriously. It isn’t exactly a comedy, but it is irreverently macabre and gets away with it by being over the top and surrealistic. To have that tone, and then bring up a painfully serious real-world trauma? It bothered me a bit.
Recommended? I thought this story had incredible potential, and if this sounds like a book you want to read even with the caveats I mentioned, go for it. Personally, though, the issues ruined it for me. It wasn’t a bad book at all. Just one where I was constantly distracted by the small changes that would have made it better. It was okay in a way that was almost great and was therefore awful, if that makes sense.