romance

Book Review | Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

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♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡  s t a r s

Norah is seventeen years old, and she hasn’t really stepped outside of her house since she was thirteen except for the occasional visit to her therapist. She has agoraphobia, anxiety and OCD, and there are too many things in the outside world that can cause harm – so she stays inside the four walls of her home, her safe haven, where she reads, watches movies, and builds forts and miniature structures from edibles. When the new boy next door starts making an effort to talk to her, Norah feels the pull to step out of her comfort zone. He’s charming, he’s cute, and has a smile that sends tingles down her spine, but Norah, despite wanting to, is terrified of letting him in.

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is as beautiful as the title sounds and the cover looks. Written with fluidity and grace, Gornall weaves words like a mastermind, conveying emotion by employing just the right vocabulary, just the right tone. It’s poetic and lyrical, without ever feeling purple. There’s something incredibly challenging about writing a book set almost entirely within the four walls of one girl’s house, but Gornall’s writing never lets you notice this until you pause, think, and admire the feat. When we think of masterful world-building, we think about fantasy universes with their own continents, governments, schools, magic systems – but the world-building in this book is confined to a house… and it’s just as good as the world-building in the best of fantasy novels. That may seem like a hyperbolic statement to you, but I don’t think it is. The author focuses on micro-details and makes it work- from the texture of Norah’s bedsheets to the contents of her refrigerator, the feel of her hallway and the aura around her windows, everything is precise, polished, and wonderfully done.

But the writing style and the world-building are just two facets of this beautiful tale. Its empathetic portrayal of the relationship between a mother and her daughter, between a young girl and her mentor, her therapist, between a girl and a boy, and this girl and herself – each and every relationship is given the perfect weight, resulting in a wholesome, balanced story that never gets boring, never does too much. Make no mistake – this is not a book about romance, it’s not one about Norah’s therapy, and it’s not a book about her relationships. It’s not a book that uses mental illness as a plot point in any plot mentioned above; it’s a book about a girl with disabilities who’s living her day-to-day life, maneuvering through family, romance and therapy as best as she can. This is what we need in contemporaries. Books that place the person at the forefront, while never ignoring, glamorizing or romanticizing their mental illness.

What makes the story lift and soar are the characters, but most specifically Norah. She’s everything I love in a character – in a human being, in fact. She’s shy and introspective, she doesn’t say much but when she does, she’s smart and funny. Her incredibly empathetic nature, her genuine regard for other people before herself, and her strength and vulnerability make her such a beautiful character. Her voice in moments when she’s vulnerable beyond anything she’s ever known, as well as when she’s navigating daily life, to her desires and hopes and dreams – everything feels so authentic. I felt like I was reading about a friend, and I teared up multiple times, just because I felt so deeply for her. Not pity. NEVER pity, but empathy. This is an empathetic book, not a sympathetic one, and I think it’s meant to be that way.

Luke, also, was such a beautifully constructed character. When he was introduced, I was apprehensive because too often have I seen the trope where falling in love cures mental illnesses, but that apprehension need not have been there. I loved the slow-burn of Luke’s relationship with Norah, because it gave time for Norah to ease into an unfamiliar situation, and acquaint herself with feeling how she felt, and what it would mean for her. I loved Luke’s attitude; instead of giving her unwanted advice, instead of trying to change any part of her life, he sought to learn and understand. He’s not perfect; he makes mistakes, and sometimes I wanted to smack him, but he’s such an incredibly kind, soft person who tries his best to understand, falters along the way, but is determined to learn and straighten himself up. He was given complexities and dilemmas of his own outside of this relationship, and sure, I would have liked to learn more about his family, but I don’t say that as a flaw in the book – it’s actually a compliment, believe it or not.

Because, for the life of me, I did not want it to end. It read like a movie, something playing in front of my eyes, with characters that I loved, adored and wanted to stay with for much, much longer. I wanted it to go on, and I would have happily read on for a couple hundred more pages. Not because it was too short; no, it was the perfect length. I’ve just become so invested in these characters’ lives that I’m craving more, and I don’t think I’ve ever said this for a contemporary stand-alone before. Any stand-alone, in fact.

If you’ve been following my reading and my reviewing for a while now, you’d know that I don’t give out five-star ratings easily. Very rarely do I come across books that I can’t find a flaw in, that I can start over right after finishing them gladly, but this is one of those rarities. It flung itself in my ‘favorites’ list, and I didn’t even realize it until after I’d turned the last page, but here I am: enamored, gushing, and wanting – no – needing more.

TRIGGER WARNING

Anxiety-inducing scenes, some suicidal ideations, and self-harm.

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ARC Review | When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

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FTC DISCLOSURE

♡ ♡ ♡  .  5   S T A R S

Dimple Shah has issues with her parents, more specifically her mother. Dimple’s a career woman with a passion for education and coding; she can’t stand putting on makeup or dressing up, and she couldn’t care less about finding an I.I.H – the Ideal Indian Husband. The problem is that her traditionally cultural mother doesn’t understand this, and if it were up to her, Dimple would be married to a suitable, nice boy by now. When Dimple gets the chance to go to San Francisco for the summer to attend a coding camp, she encounters a nasty surprise: Rishi. He was sent by his and her parents who’d promised Rishi that they’d get married after they’d met. But their first meeting doesn’t go quite as planned. Now, they have to spend a summer together – Rishi, a hopeless romantic is smitten by her, and Dimple, frustrated and annoyed, needs to achieve her coding goals and possibly get by without murdering Rishi or her parents.

When Dimple Met Rishi is the perfect example of what a Bollywood movie on paper looks like. It’s heartfelt, it’s fun, it’s fast-paced, and at times it’s so melodramatic that it’s ridiculous – but mostly in a good way. Part rom-com, part coming-of-age story, Menon’s woven a story that will capture the hearts of hopeless romantics like Rishi, as well as the more ‘practical’ ones who put their career goals before their love lives. It offers well-integrated insight into Indian culture, includes Hindi dialogue seamlessly into the narrative with food and Bollywood references that any person who’s familiar with the culture will immediately spot and grin at, while those who are unfamiliar will learn, and may want to know more. But make no mistake, When Dimple Met Rishi is not about Indian culture – that’s just there.

Which is one of the things that makes the book so special, in my mind. So often, South Asian cultures are reduced to stereotypes – even, to some extent, by authors from the same background. Which is not me saying that their experiences are less. They’re not, but just that it can be incredibly alienating for readers to find the same type of narratives everywhere they turn. This particular book doesn’t do that; it’s about a young girl, living her life, doing what she loves, having her issues, falling in love. These stories far outweigh the negative ones, and we rarely get to see them in books. There is infinite value in books like these because they serve to diversify, not other.

There is also infinite value in Soft Boys – I’ve said this time and time again, but I’m sick and tired of the bad boy trope. I need me some soft boys in YA lit – guys who are just nice, and do nice things, and think nice thoughts, who respect other people and thus get respect back. Rishi Patel is the ultimate soft boy, and I love him. He’s such a kind, thoughtful person who does little things to make people happy; there are facets to his personality that everyone can relate to. His respect and love for his parents was something that immediately clicked with me, while his struggle with needing to be the perfect son and wanting a career in something that might not make him bags of money is something that I feel a lot of South Asian kids would relate to. Soft, but not without his own flaws and complexities, and I really loved how Menon executed his character.

On the flip side, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Dimple. I admired her initially – gutsy, outspoken, strong-willed and feisty, but as time wore on, her initial charm wore off – particularly when it comes to her behavior around Rishi. There is a scene near the beginning of their meeting where she forces him to drink alcohol at a party, after he repeatedly refuses. She pushes him into situations that are uncomfortable for him more than a few times; she crosses the line more than a few times, and even though I didn’t mind her individually, her behavior was frustrating and frankly, a little shocking. Some may say that this ‘flaw’ is what makes Dimple’s character complex, but I would disagree. Not to give anything away, but these things are never challenged. They just are, and Rishi goes along with them. If the genders were flipped, perhaps more people would notice that it is not okay for someone to constantly push and shove someone else into literal submission.

When you don’t like the main character, other things start to pop up. For one, the insta-love is an issue. I can’t say much about that at risk of spoilers, but falling so madly and deeply in love within a few weeks? Not buying it. On top of that, the romance was a little too cheesy for my taste, but some people enjoy the thrill of first-love cheese, so that’s entirely subjective. I also felt that the ending was rushed, and way too melodramatic – the ending was one I’ve seen in one too many Bollywood movies, and I felt that Menon could’ve done something different, something more interesting.

But ultimately, despite all the flaws, When Dimple Met Rishi is a good addition to your summer reading list; it is fun, it’s flirty, you’ll devour it because it’s addictive. And by the turn of the last page, you’ll definitely want more – come to me for some Bollywood recs; you’ll need them!

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Review | Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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FTC DISCLOSURE

♡   S T A R

Libby Strout is fat – she was once called “America’s Fattest Teen” after an unfortunate incident in her past. Libby’s just trying to live her life after her mother passed away, but kids in high school are cruel, and nobody wants to look past Libby’s weight and really get to know her for who she is. And then there’s Jack Masselin – he’s popular, he’s attractive, but he has the reputation of the school douche because people think he’s too egotistical and arrogant to remember who they are. In fact, Jack has prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. He can’t recognize and recall people’s faces – not his family’s, not his friends’, not anybody’s. When Libby and Jack’s paths collide, they form an unlikely bond.

As a fat person, media can be alienating. When I turn on the TV or go to the movies, everyone on screen looks a certain way, the way that my parents want me to look, the way that society wants me to look, and I’m constantly reminded that no matter what I do, what successes I have in life, my fatness will remain the focal point for many people. The stark lack of representation fat people have in the media- past crass stereotypes and being the butt of cheap jokes- is a slap in the face. And I’ve learned to turn the cheek, for the most part, but when a book like Holding Up the Universe comes along, promising representation, promising a narrative that I can see myself in, I foolishly lean forward.

Which is exactly what’s wrong with this book. Libby Strout is written to be some sort of strong force in the world that constantly puts her down; as a result, she is a caricature. A battle warrior facing off against the cruel world, with no flaws of her own, with a larger-than-life personality, giving off the message that unless you’re fighting and winning some sort of war every second of your life, are you really doing fatness right? Now, I understand that not all people’s experiences mirror mine, and that’s okay. But when the main character in a book is a fighter archetype, battling against society’s perspectives on fatness, that character has to live up to it.

But Libby is nothing but fat, and that defeats the purpose, no? Niven was trying to give  off the message that fat people are more than just fat (no shit), but she fails astoundingly because Libby’s life revolves around her fatness. Her love life revolves around finding someone who will look past her fatness, someone who’ll have sex with her regardless of her being fat – another thing which blows my mind, because the book starts off with her wanting to lose weight by having sex! Her relationship with her father revolves around how it’s not his fault that she’s fat. Her past is described by how she used to be fatter than she is now, and her future is also about how people will eventually look past her fatness, hopefully, maybe. Fat people are more than their fatness, and for a book about a fat character to contradict the very message it’s trying to pass along is laughably offensive.

Because what are Libby’s goals? I didn’t see any! She was a reader, but that doesn’t really go past anything except her relating her fatness to the character in her favorite book. Is Libby good in school? What are her career goals? What are her hobbies? She likes to dance, alright, but even that one aspect of her not directly related to her fatness is still saturated by it. We are people with lives – every single moment of our lives does not involve our weight.

Something similar happens with Jack’s character, though I can’t speak extensively about it since I don’t have a disability. It seems to give off the stench of “Jack is broken and must be fixed to have a good life.” These narratives written by authors who do not share their characters’ disabilities make me very uncomfortable; I am a firm believer that you can write whatever you’d like to, but there are some narratives that are better left alone if you can’t navigate them in a sensitive way. That coupled with the fact that Jack’s afro was described as a “lion’s mane,” and his hair was the only thing that seemed to indicate that he was black screamed tokenism to me. Where Libby’s outward appearance extended to everything she ever did, Jack’s race was strictly superficial, and as any person of color living as a minority in the US knows, it is never that simple.

So there it is – this book had very many thematic issues that ran deeper than technicalities like characterization and writing style, both of which were actually pretty good. If Niven was writing in her lane, as I say it, I’m sure I’d adore her work – she does have the ability to pull you in and keep you reading, but there was so much thematically wrong with this book that I can’t seem to give credit where it may be due. If you’re looking for good fat rep, just skip this, and maybe read a book by a fat author – like Dumplin’.

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Book Review | 10 Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac

10 THINGS I CAN SEE FROM HERE

FTC DISCLOSURE

Maeve has severe generalized anxiety disorder, which basically means that she worries excessively about everything. Her mother doesn’t believe in medication for her anxiety until Maeve hits eighteen, so Maeve can’t get the help that she knows she needs. She’s found a way to keep her panic attacks in check, but even then, her day-to-day life is affected by her anxiety. Things get worse when Maeve’s mom goes away to Haiti for six months, leaving Maeve to spend her summer with her father in Vancouver. Her dad’s a recovering alcoholic, and her relationship with him isn’t the best, but no way is her mom leaving Maeve alone at home for six months. While there, Maeve meets Salix, a carefree, laid-back girl who plays the violin and has big dreams- the two bond immediately, and maybe the summer won’t be as bad as Maeve had thought.

Contemporaries often bother me – not to generalize them or anything, but I tend to be more critical towards contemporaries, perhaps because it’s easier to see myself in them. If a contemporary is not well-rounded, meaning that if it focuses too much on one thing instead of several aspects of a person’s life, chances are that I won’t like it. The fact that I enjoyed 10 Things I Can See From Here is testament to the fact that it is extremely well-rounded and balanced, giving the right amount of weight to Maeve’s dynamic with her stepmother and her half-brothers, her mother and father, her budding romance with Salix, her relationship with her ex-bestfriend, and her dealing with her own anxiety. Each and every subplot was done justice, and that’s what makes this contemporary stand out.

Maeve’s relationship with her father is, in my opinion, the main focus of the story rather than the romance. She’s such a sensitive person, who feels everything twice as much as the people around her, something that often works against her – but she can’t help it. Her longing to connect with her father when she’s going through an exceptionally rough patch, her willingness to give him chance after chance because she loves him so much and just wants things to get better – the entire dynamic was realistic, and it was heartbreaking, and it was important because it sheds light on children of parents who abuse substances.

The second thing that struck me was the way Maeve’s anxiety was presented- almost like a character, in and of itself. Mac weaves the anxiety into the very narration, into her own writing style and technique. She spends careful time on getting the reader inside Maeve’s head, so much so that you begin to feel the worry pulsating inside your own body. Which is not to say that you can ever feel the experiences of people who have GAD, but you get some awareness. From negative reviews, I’ve seen that the colorful, often very graphic depictions of death and accidents, and the excessive worry became tiresome and dull for some people- I guess that’s a valid critique, but I can counter it by saying that repetition was the point. GAD is not comfortable. It’s not something you can switch off when you feel it getting repetitive and tiresome; it’s persistent, it’s debilitating, and I think the way it’s presented here is very important. Moreover, I saw some critique saying that Maeve was an unlikable protagonist. She does make some decisions that I doubt, some off-hand comments about her ex-bestfriend that made me flinch, but the critique I’ve seen relates to how she “annoys” other characters. Again, I think Mac did such a wonderful job of showing how anxiety doesn’t only affect the person who has it, but the people around said person too. It’s unfair to say that Maeve was unlikable just because she behaved in a way that anxiety made her behave.

The romance between Maeve and Salix was very cute; it was healthy, it developed well, and even though I had issues with how they kept bumping into each other (I dislike tropes that play on fate), I really enjoyed their dynamic. I loved that Salix understood Maeve’s anxiety and helped however she could, and the trope of “love-cured-my-illness” was banished out-of-sight.

I had a few issues too, mainly with the lack of closure surrounding some of the storylines. I wanted to see more of Maeve and her mother’s relationship, especially because she plays an incredibly important role in Maeve’s life. I wanted to see flashbacks, or some interaction outside of e-mails, texts and phone calls. I also felt that the story would have benefited had an epilogue been added to the end, something that showed us what Maeve’s life is like after she has to go back home. There could easily be a sequel to this, because I feel like I need to know more about Maeve and Salix, the resolution with the family issues, with the need to see Maeve get the help that she needs with her anxiety. A sequel would be great.

Ultimately, 10 Things I Can See From Here is a beautifully written summer-contemporary that is perfect for fans of Morgan Matson, Stephanie Perkins and Rainbow Rowell. If you’re looking for something well-rounded that’s not too heavy, but also focuses on important themes, pick this one up.

TRIGGER WARNING

material that can induce anxiety or panic attacks (such as chronic worrying about events out of someone’s control), graphic depictions of accidents and death, substance abuse, sexual assault.

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The Education of Margot Sanchez: fast-paced, important and nuanced

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FTC DISCLOSURE
Margot Sanchez had her summer in the Hamptons planned out and ready to go- that is before she was busted for ‘borrowing’ her father’s credit card to buy a $600 outfit. Now she needs to pay off everything she owes to her parents, and to do that, she’s working at her father’s deli in the Bronx. Her earnings don’t go into her pocket, but rather directly to her father- she’s basically an indentured servant, and she couldn’t be more distraught. As the ultimate beach party Margot is invited to draws ever closer, Margot’s determined to go, or she might lose her hard-earned social status at her privileged high school. And no way will Margot let that happen. Things are further complicated when a cute local, socially aware boy named Moises comes into her life.

The Education of Margot Sanchez has a lot going for it – a deeply flawed and realistic main character, who is both unlikable yet relatable, a complicated family dynamic that builds up slowly to come to an exploding climax, and fun, fast-paced high school drama that gives the book its larger voice. But while all the elements were there, much of the aspects felt lackluster and incomplete- at least during the first half of the book. Before the book hits the 50% mark, I felt cold towards Margot – not indifferent, but cold. Despite relating to her deep-set need for a place to belong, and her complicated feelings regarding identity (with her community, her family, her socioeconomic status, her culture versus her privileged school and her white, upper-class friends), I disliked how Margot handled the cards dealt to her. Because I’d been in such a similar position for a lot of my life, I found myself a little frustrated with her decisions, which launched my indifference towards her to coolness.

More than that, perhaps, I had very little interest in Margot’s love life. While I appreciated the fleshiness of Moises’s character – he was rather well developed, and immediately likable – I felt there were more important things at hand than a summer crush. There was clear, serious tension between Margot’s family. Her relationship with her father was outwardly amicable but Margot has suspicions from the very start about there being something off. Her relationship with her brother was one-dimensional in the first half, and her mother was mostly a prop. These were all my issues with the first half.

However. The story picked up incredibly quickly as soon as it hit the 50% mark. It seemed like Rivera thought back after she’d written half and realized all the flaws, and decided to kick it up several notches because I could not put the book down after those initial hurdles were passed. Margot, despite remaining someone with flaws, despite being someone who you question, developed into a complicated young woman who’s doing her best to learn and be better. She becomes aware of herself and her vices, and works towards bettering herself, which was something I had hoped would be apparent from the beginning.

The romance was pushed to the side – rightly so, I would say, to make way for the larger themes at hand, such as Margot’s struggle with her identity. It was explored more in the second half, as well as her fraught relationship with her local Bronx friends, and the dynamic between her and her community. Her relationship with her parents and her brother was explored deeply; we got to see her home life, her past relationship with her brother and how he changed. We see them interact more, we see exactly what went wrong and how. This, I felt, was infinitely more important than some of the stuff being explored in the first half, and the new turn the book took definitely did wonders for it.

I had issues with the writing as well; I often felt like I was being fed messages and lessons, rather than being shown them. For example, often a dialogue would take place between Margot and someone else, and it would largely be obvious from the dialogue what is implied, but the next paragraph would explain it to the reader anyway. It felt as if the author doubted the reader’s intelligence to critically and analytically read deeply enough to gather implications without them being outwardly stated- but perhaps that’s just me and my strange personal preferences.

Ultimately, despite all my issues, I did enjoy this book- and it’s an important book at that with a diverse cast of characters, set in an area of New York City often disregarded and overlooked for God knows what reason. It explores the meaning of identity and the struggles of minority youth who are thrust into environments where they are not fully represented or made to feel like they are different or Other. It’s a book I would recommend to contemporary fans, because it’s interesting, it’s nuanced, and it’s very important.

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Everything Leads to You: a fast-paced, entertaining contemporary

Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour


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eltyEverything Leads to You follows the story of Emi, a teenage girl about to graduate from high school who’s passion is film. She’s a film-buff, and because of her passion, she scored an internship a couple of years ago in the art-production department of a film. But despite her career flourishing, Emi’s real-life relationships are far from perfect. The girl she’s in love with has broken up with her six times, and she still can’t figure out what her intentions are. When Emi and her best friend find themselves in the possession of a letter written to a mystery woman by one of the biggest Western movie stars after his death, Emi is determined to find the recipient of the letter. This leads her to Ava, who is beautiful, enigmatic and unlike anyone Emi has ever met. Everything Leads to You is the story of one girl’s discovery of love and what truly matters in life.

You may know by now that I don’t usually feel strongly about contemporaries, in general, especially vanilla contemporaries. I had expected this to be a cutesy romance with maybe some other stuff in the background, but I was pleasantly surprised by how cohesive the story was. There’s a little bit of everything in this novel – we have a strong, intense focus on familial relationships. We have several wonderful friendships. All the characters feel ample, and although I’d hoped they’d be a little more fleshed-out, I didn’t think they were flat. The romance was slow-burn and nothing was given away too quickly. I’ve also never read an LGBTQ+ book without the ‘coming out’ factor, so it was new and fun to see how the focus was put on romance and life rather than sexuality.

“Because in the conversation beneath this one, what we’re really saying is I am an imperfect person. Here are my failures. Do you want me anyway?”

But perhaps my favorite part of this novel was our protagonist’s vocation. Interior design is something I really enjoy, but I’d never thought of how art and interior design play a role in film sets – which is ridiculous, come to think of it. Emi’s passion shone through the pages; there was no doubt about it that she was extremely passionate about what she was doing. You know when you read a book and the characters are obsessed with one thing or another, and you just don’t feel the connect? That wasn’t the case in Everything Leads to You. Nina LaCour does such a beautiful job connecting the readers to the protagonist and the protagonist’s passions. It was also surprising how invested I was in the film’s storyline and characters; I hadn’t expected that to happen!

But while that’s a praise, it also contributes to a con in the book. Towards the end, I felt like ‘real-life’ was wrapped up nicely without it feeling too final or too open, but I would have liked some closure with Emi’s film and Emi’s job, especially since they play such a prominent role in the story. I would have liked to see some sort of success – or even failure, just something. Perhaps this leaves room for a sequel? I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, simply because there’s so much that can still be explored.

I also felt like a couple of the storylines were dragging. I appreciated LaCour’s inclusion of familial elements, but sometimes I thought it went overboard, mostly with Ava. I felt like I already knew her family situation enough, so the ‘climax’ didn’t feel climactic. It just felt like another brick in the wall, you know? Also, the decision to include two main characters in the story was interesting, but ultimately fell flat because I just didn’t feel as invested in Ava’s story to think of her as a protagonist. I might have liked the story more if Emi was the protagonist, and we were looking into Ava’s life from Emi’s outsider perspective, rather than equal footing in both lives. I hope this makes sense; perhaps it will make more sense when you’ve read the book.

Overall, Everything Leads to You was a pleasant surprise. And despite its problems, it was still a fast-paced, entertaining, cohesive read that will have you hooked with its characters and its addictive, welcoming writing style.

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The Beauty of Darkness: an explosive finale to a series that proved me wrong

The Beauty of Darkness (The Remnant Chronicles #3) by Mary E. Pearson


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Since this review is for the third and final book in The Remnant Chronicles, please be aware that it will have general spoilers for the first two books.

Beauty of DarknessFor those of you who don’t know, Mary E. Pearson’s The Remnant Chronicles follows the story of Lia, the princess of Morrighan who runs away from her kingdom to avoid an arranged marriage she does not want. She lives in hiding as a tavern maid, and comes across two men: one who is the prince she basically left at the altar, and one an assassin from the ‘barbarian’ kingdom of Venda who has come to assassinate her. Lia does not know which guy is which, and neither does the audience – at least, not for the majority of the first book. The Kiss of Deception was alright; Pearson obviously made a bold decision with shrouding two potential love interests in such darkly veiled mystery, but I felt the book could have had more potential had their identities not been hidden. Because of this, I was hesitant going into The Heart of Betrayal. I shouldn’t have been, because that one was a big step-up from the first book.

And now The Beauty of Darkness. Wow, I had not expected this book to do so many of the things it did. Firstly, I did not expect it to be a 700-page tome full of non-stop, fast-paced, heart-pounding action. I did not expect it to have this level of political intrigue, of shaded, nuanced romance, of such tremendous character development, as well as some kick-ass battle scenes that felt like I was back in a Lord of the Rings movie (for real).

Let’s start with the politics. The Beauty of Darkness begins with a weak, severely injured Lia being carried out of Venda in Rafe’s arms. Lia is fighting for her life, and with a squad of Rahtan sharp on their heels, Rafe, Lia and Rafe’s men need to make haste towards a Dalbretch outpost so they can get to safety. We saw Morrighan in the first book, Venda in the second book, and though we didn’t get to see too much of Dalbreck in this one, we still got a vivid picture of how the kingdom works. Pearson explores the meaning of duty, of honor, of one’s responsibility to their countries and kingdoms so brilliantly. These kingdoms are fractured and in desperate need for some good leadership; our characters are thrust fully into these positions, and they need to figure out where their loyalties lie. Rafe and Lia are wildly in love, but Rafe’s kingdom is still reeling from Morrighan’s ‘slight,’ considering Lia left the Dalbretch prince on the altar. Kaden and Lia are friends, but he is from Venda, a kingdom from whence an army rides to destroy Morrighan. The complicated web of politics and friendship makes this a deeply nuanced, deeply complex novel.

Speaking of the characters, I distinctly remember not caring about any of the protagonists in the first book. As you may know by now, characterization is of the utmost importance to me; if I’m not invested in the characters, chances are that I’m not invested in the book. But they grew on me in the second book- I was still cool towards Kaden, but Rafe had become a dearly beloved, and I was beginning to appreciate Lia for who she was. But Pearson kicked  characterization up several notches in her finale; the sheer size of the book coupled with the amount of hardships they are put through resulted in a very flawed, yet very real cast of people. Their development is so clear and tangible that you can pinpoint what parts of them have changed, what parts have remained the same, and what parts they still need to work on. I have become so sick of characters whose flaws are also endearing, and Mary stays far, far away from that trope. These characters’ flaws are not endearing- but they are understandable, and they learn from their mistakes.

Rafe, especially, is a deeply flawed person. Burdened with duty and his carnal desire to protect the people he loves, he has the tendency to turn into a full-on douchebag. And he does a few times in this book, but simply the way his character is explored and navigated gave me a new appreciation for his strength. It gave me insight into his character that I never had before. Kaden, too, grew on me in this book. I never wanted Lia and Kaden to get together, simply because I didn’t think Lia had any feelings for him. We all know Kaden loves her, but again- just the way his love for her is explored is so brilliantly done that I couldn’t find it in me to dislike him. Lia grew from a ‘meh’ protagonist to perhaps one that I will remember for years to come.

The romance was handled wonderfully, despite it being extremely complicated and topsy-turvy. Lia and Rafe both have duties to their kingdoms- duties that aren’t so easily ignored. They are no longer farmer and tavern maid; they cannot abandon their lives to stay with each other because their kingdoms are desperately in need. They make some huge mistakes with regards to each other. Their romance is not an easy one, and they genuinely need to walk through fire to be with each other. And there are so many times in this novel that my heart was pounding in my chest because I was sure my ship was going to sink. Pearson keeps you on your toes, and she tells her readers that this series was never about Lia choosing between Rafe and Kaden. This series was always about Rafe and Lia, and if they could work it out despite all the obstacles thrown their way. And until the very end, you don’t know what their fate will be. You simply don’t. This ‘trope’ of commitment and devotion is so rare in YA, and it was such a refreshing reprieve from the “who will she choose” thing.

“Love didn’t end all at once, no matter how much you needed it to or how inconvenient it was. You couldn’t command love to stop any more than a marriage document could order it to appear. Maybe love had to bleed away a drop at a time until your heart was numb and cold and mostly dead.”

Of course, no book is perfect. It had its flaws. But perhaps the biggest problem I had was that the magic-part of the world-building didn’t interest me at all, and I found myself losing track whenever Lia’s “gift” was mentioned. I was so invested in the politics and the characters without the involvement of magic that I simply didn’t see the need for it. I had also hoped that I’d gotten to see more of Dalbreck; the Dalbretch characters introduced were so well fleshed-out and lovely that they drew me to the kingdom, and I simply didn’t see much of it. But apart from those minor problems, this book was a damn-near perfect conclusion to a series I didn’t have high hopes for at all. Well, Pearson proved me wrong, and up she goes near the top of my Auto-Buy list.

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