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Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime by Mizuku Nomura, trans. Karen McGillicuddy

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High school student Konoha Inoue is a gifted writer who’s lost his passion for his craft. When he meets beautiful upperclassman Tohko Amano, though, he finds someone with a greater hunger for literature than anyone he’s ever met… literally!

Amano is a book-scarfing goblin who satisfies her cravings by munching on the printed works of history’s greatest authors. However, nothing is as delicious as the handwritten stories she bullies Konoha into writing for her.

When a desperate classmate approaches the “literature club” to draft love letters on her behalf, the very thought of it sets Tohko’s mouth watering! But as Konoha will discover, the greatest love stories are often the most tragic…
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Jeannette Ng, of last week’s Under the Pendulum Sun review, some little while ago had a thread of light novel recommendations. I’ve been curious about light novels for a while now, and so took these up…

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is an odd little book, which starts off as one thing before slowly morphing into quite a different book. It seems, at first glance, to be quite a frothy little novel, a story about high school romance, subterfuge, and misplaced or unrequited love; Nomura leans heavily into the frilly side of the novel as she kicks proceedings off. It is only as the book continues and developes that a darker theme emerges; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime isn’t about a love story, it’s an investigation into a death, an investigation Konoha and Tohko have been tricked into by seemingly-chirpy Chia Takeda, a first year.

The slide from one plotline into the other is strangely smooth; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime builds up the romantic plotline as a standard schoolgirl romance, unrequited and of an older student, before Konoha’s attempts to learn more about this older student turn up the fact that he doesn’t actually exist. Nomura doesn’t lean heavily on supernatural elements, although Konoha assumes they are in play; instead, this is essentially, but for the book-eating girl herself, a dark piece of mimetic fiction, and the plot reflects that, with its plotting that has more than a hint of the Shakespearean to its resolution.

Shakespeare is not the only literary touchstone for Nomura in Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime. Not only does Tohko reference the different way different authors taste repeatedly, and show an incredible engagement in literary criticism and a deep engagement with various texts, but the whole book is built in conversation with Osamu Dazai. Indeed, many of the decisions characters make are heavily influenced by, and structured around, Dazai’s final work, No Longer Human; all the characters have read it, and there is explicit engagement with it in the context of Dazai’s wider ouevre, making literary criticism a key plot point for this novel.

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is also a fascinating book for its characterisation; everyone has a full and interesting personality, and the degree to which things like depression and angst are treated sympathetically is incredibly powerful. Indeed, Nomura’s discussion of different presentations of difference and depression, and the coping and deflection methods teenagers may develop to mask it, is moving in its accuracy; characters aren’t flattened by their mental health difficulties, only altered by them, and we have to see people in new lights as we learn more about them. This is a rare nuanced approach, and the way it manifests in the central cast is really well written.

The problem comes in the way Nomura treats the physicality of the female characters; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime seems almost to become a different novel temporarily at times, as the bodies of the girls in the cast are discussed in pornographic, prurient, male-gaze ways that really intrude on the way the rest of the book is written. By turns deeply thoughtful and whimsically light, Nomura’s occasional succumbing to the pressures of certain conventions of how one describes a girl’s body really jar when they appear.

In the end, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime isn’t high art, but it is deeply thought and felt art; it’s breezy, and eases you into its darkness, but Nomura really does carry that darkness well. A fascinating read.

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A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, trans. Jocelyne Allen

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What are the Bamboo?
They are from China.
They look just like us.
They live by night.
They drink human lifeblood but otherwise keep their distance.
And every century, they grow white blooming flowers.

A boy name Kyo is saved from the precipice of death by Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. They start an enjoyable yet strange shared life together, Kyo and the gentle Bamboo. But for Bamboo, communication with a human being is the greatest sin.
~~~~~
Vampires are a mainstay of horror, and have been since before John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819; they’ve also long been a subject for reclamation in fiction, whether in that model or from other cultures. A Small Charred Face caught my eye as another entry in that long tradition of humanising monsters… Kazuki Sakuraba’s book is somewhere between a single novel and three separate, linked novellas collected into one volume; the marketing suggests it be read as one, and so I will review it as such.

A Small Charred Face is fundamentally a wistful, sad set of stories; it is about fading, aging, changing, and memory. The first two parts of the book are very intimate in scale, following single individuals; first, a human child taken in by a pair of Bamboo, who raise him until he becomes an adult; and second, a Bamboo who had befriended him briefly in his childhood, who later took in the child he took in shortly before his own death. They focus in very deeply and intently on the emotional relationships, and the idea of growing up; in the first part, of how a child does not understand the importance of growing up, and in the second, the problem of not growing up while those around one do.

A Small Charred Face is beautiful in both these parts; the characters are so well realised and so deeply, painfully human, in all their flaws, that their fights, their struggles, and their loves are all intensely touching. Watching Kyo age, and realise what he has forgotten, is a profoundly painful experience; while watching Mariko remain a perpetual child, while those around her age and die and maybe even forget her fundamental traumas, is similarly brutal. Sakuraba’s grasp of voice is vital here; the shifting first person narration is not only incredibly individual, but also ages with the characters, and shows their emotional development, in a very real way. Sakuraba’s writing also draws the reader through with great pacing and style, demanding one reads on to find out what happens to these characters, making it a fast book to read, and one hard to put down.

Sakuraba also shows romantic love beautifully; Kyo is raised by Mustah and Yoji, a pair of male Bamboo, and their mutual love and adoration is never shown as a sexual matter, but is shown as utterly pervading everything about them. A Small Charred Face, for half its length, shows some truly beautiful romantic writing; and the confusion of feelings of Kyo towards his adoptive parents is painful and beautiful to behold, as is the way his feelings about his past change and develop.

The third story in A Small Charred Face is rather less strong; it explains how Bamboo society in Japan came to be, in exile from China. Focused on a narrator who is a smart, dedicated, driven member of the royalty of the takezoku (the name the Bamboo called themselves in China), it looks at persecution and at discrimination. Sakuraba takes on a lot of themes across the sixty pages of this story, and tries to grapple with them all; while the despair of a brilliant woman forced into hiding her intelligence because of the needs of society are incredibly moving, other emotional elements don’t ring true, in part because the story is just too rushed, and relies too much on the way it plays on references to events in the future of the story that happened in previous episodes of the book.

In the end, A Small Charred Face reminded me very strongly of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling; both intensely emotional and beautiful books using vampires to talk about humanity, Sakuraba’s is much more wistfully sad, but, for the most part, just as brilliant.

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Hadriana In All My Dreams by René Depestre, trans. Kaiama L. Glover

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Hadriana in All My Dreams, winner of the prestigious Prix Renaudot, takes place primarily during Carnival in 1938 in the Haitian village of Jacmel. A beautiful young French woman, Hadriana, is about to marry a Haitian boy from a prominent family. But on the morning of the wedding, Hadriana drinks a mysterious potion and collapses at the altar. Transformed into a zombie, her wedding becomes her funeral. She is buried by the town, revived by an evil sorcerer, then disappears into popular legend.

Set against a backdrop of magic and eroticism, and recounted with delirious humor, the novel raises universal questions about race and sexuality. The reader comes away enchanted by the marvelous reality of Haiti’s Vodou culture and convinced of Depestre’s lusty claim that all beings—even the undead ones—have a right to happiness and true love.
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I learned about Hadriana In All My Dreams from the wonderful Bogi Takács; eir monthly Diverse Book Highlights on eir blog and Patreon are incredibly useful, and e brings to my attention all kinds of books I wouldn’t otherwise find out about – including, much earlier this year, this particular Haitian text, translated into English almost thirty years after its original French publication.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is a novel in three parts, and each part has a different narratorial voice and approach, but they combine to a whole. The first part is the story, told by Patrick Altamont from his perspective as a child, of Hadriana’s wedding day and funeral. It has a childlike innocence to it, although there is still an eroticism and sexuality shot through the celebrations; but its the eroticism of a person who hasn’t had sex, who idealises it without really understanding it. Depestre’s use of stories in this section is especially fascinating; as well as telling a chronological story, there are nested stories told by other characters to Patrick and to each other, which explain in mythological terms the events being witnessed or that contextualise things in historical terms. The fact that the stories have a different narrative voice to Patrick’s in this first section is powerful, and really shows them as recounted from the voices of others.

The second, brief section of Hadriana In All My Dreams is of an older Patrick, looking back on the suppressed memory of Hadriana’s death and apparent zombification; this is the most varied section in terms of style. Depestre includes an academic argument, albeit with vulgar language, a newspaper report in the style of a travel puff piece, and an imagined interview with a journalist, as well as more traditional narrative forms; the mingling of these registers serves as a fantastic bridge away from the simple narrative of the first half, centring external perceptions of what happened to Hadriana, even while trying to fit them into theory. This is also the part which is most referential; authorities from Levi-Strauss to Fanon and de Beauvoir are quoted, although there is also a sardonic undercutting of the theoretical, as Depestre’s narrator wonders where the place of an individual is in the midst of theoretical discourse.

The final section is where we see a real shift in Hadriana In All My Dreams, from Patrick’s narrative to Hadriana’s own. Depestre moves us from an external experience of zombification, and of the funereal rites, to an internal one; from a participant and celebrant to an unparticipating focus. This subjective shift is achieved with fantastic style, and comes with a slightly more free-ranging narrative; built into this section are dreams and recollections, telling stories within stories and contradicting the stories others are telling about Hadriana. There is also an interesting shift of sexuality; whereas Patrick’s sexuality in the first two sections is essentially adolescent, Hadriana’s is much more adult, although largely unexpressed apart from gropings and one particular encounter with another woman.

The way Depestre, and in her translation Kaiama L. Glover, use language is incredibly effective. Each section has a slightly different dialect and voice, and they’re consistent with their sections, calling to mind a slightly different image of the narrator; and Hadriana In All My Dreams flows incredibly well, with an attention to important details that really vividly bring Jacmel to life and the characters of the book to a loud reality. The one place where Glover, perhaps reflecting Depestre, hits some strange snags is in the approach to genitalia; this feels clunky in its figurativeness, and the language used trips the mind up rather than flowing as part of the text, in a strange way.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is an interesting novel, and unusually resonant for a zombie novel. Zombies are, of course, famously versatile metaphors, whether for consumerism or faceless foreign immigrants one is allowed to kill; here, though, zombification isn’t a metaphor, but a literal truth, around which other things are thrown into focus. Depestre doesn’t write about zombies with horror but rather with a kind of wistfulness for the impact of the zombification; Jacmel is changed utterly by Hadriana’s story, as social divisions over religion, race, and culture are thrown into stark contrast, and that is where the interest of the narrative lies.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is a beautiful, elegaic novel full of life; a zombie novel, but not like any other zombie novel I’ve read. It’s good to see Depestre’s brilliant book has finally made it into English, and I hope it’ll lead to more translations to come.

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Habibi by Craig Thompson

One a month, those sponsoring my Patreon at $5/post or more get to nominate, and then collectively choose, a work for me to review that month. Last month, they chose…
Habibi by Craig Thompson
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Sprawling across an epic landscape of deserts, harems, and modern industrial clutter, Habibi tells the tale of Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance, by circumstance, and by the love that grows between them. We follow them as their lives unfold together and apart; as they struggle to make a place for themselves in a world (not unlike our own) fueled by fear, lust, and greed; and as they discover the extraordinary depth—and frailty—of their connection.

At once contemporary and timeless, Habibi gives us a love story of astounding resonance: a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and, most potently, the magic of storytelling.
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It’s well known that alongside science fiction and fantasy novels, I have a serious passion for graphic novels and comics; not just the superheroes that are the most recognised and public face of the genre, but a whole variety of the form of marriage of word and art. I suspect it is with this, as much as the content, in mind that my Patreon patrons asked me to review Craig Thompson’s giant magical-realist science fiction comic Habibi!

Before we go any further, for reasons that will become clear, I think it’s worth reminding you that I’m a white British Christian raised in a white, secular household with Jewish family and influences, so what I say should be read bearing that in mind.

The art, it is undeniable, is beautiful. Thompson has integrated Arabic calligraphy into Habibi stunningly, using it to transition, as panel borders, and as part of the story; the pseudo-abstract patterns he creates using the sentences, poems and words in Arabic throughout the book are stunning, and provide a beautiful backdrop for detailed, rich art throughout, that is more than a little reminiscent of Hergé’s Tintin work. Unfortunately, that extends to the approach to drawing ethnicity; Thompson has a tendency towards racial caricature, notably with his black and Arab characters, who really do embody the worst visual stereotypes he could possibly have come across.

That extends into the writing of Habibi. This is a story centred around a Muslim woman who is sold into marriage as a girl, enslaved, flees and becomes a sex worker (clearly marked in the story as shameful by Thompson), and then a courtesan of the Sultan; and her companion, a black fellow slave who she cares for as a son, who becomes a water trader, and then a eunuch, before being reunited with her. With the Middle Eastern setting of the story, then, we hit all kinds of negative and problematic tropes about Muslim and Arabic culture, actively reinforced by the author and narrative alike; Thompson isn’t interested in deconstructing these tropes, only reinforcing them. This isn’t a clever deconstruction of the idea of the sex worker as inevitably-raped, objectified, and somehow damaged, nor of the eunuch or other nonbinary presentation as damaged and distorted by childhood events; instead, it straightforwardly replicated both of these, in painful ways to read. Habibi also of course suggests that all (Arab) men fetishise and sexualise peripubescent girls and want to sleep with them; this is of course tabloid-fodder in the UK, and no more true of any ethnic or religious group than it is of any other.

The real disappointment is that wrapped in this shell is some fantastic writing. Habibi borrows the tale-within-a-tale approach of texts such as the 1,001 Nights; Dodola tells stories to Zam and to herself as a kind of survival mechanism and teaching tool. These include stories from the Quran, myths about Solomon, cautionary tales, and more; they play with the differences between the different Abrahamic texts and traditions; and they do some fascinating things with religious syncreticism. The setting is also, were it less steeped in racism, worthy of thought; in a post-abundance world, there’s a blend of magical realist and post-apocalyptic elements, which creates a strange kind of familiarity and distance with the work that has some interesting ideas wrapped into it.

In the end, Habibi is almost like two things put together; some beautiful art and narrative approaches with some fantastic worldbuilding, married to an awful lot of really racist, sexist, transphobic ideas.

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Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.
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Passing Strange is a bit of an odd duck in the Tor.com novella line up: so far everything I’ve read from them has been very much core genre, and I’ve read most of the line up, at least one installment in each series. Passing Strange is a very different beast, although one still very much in line with the rest of its author’s (fêted) ouevre…

As we all know, being queer was taboo in the 1940s in America, even in liberal bastions like San Francisco, the city to which every black sheep ran; Passing Strange is all about that experience, about being a queer woman in that period – and about different ways of being a queer woman in the period. Klages assembles a small ensemble cast to show us multiple different intersecting oppressions – the Japanese-American Helen Young, dealing with anti-Japanese racism in an America only a few years away from war with Japan; the disinherited upper-class Emily Netterfield, who performs drag; pulp cover-artist Loretta Haskel (misgendered by later ‘experts’ in the field, of course); and more. Each woman sparkles brightly and beautifully with a vivacity that feels something like a Hollywood glamour film; they leap off the page brightly, and even in their quieter, more domestic moments, they have a kind of shine.

It’s beautiful writing and character realisation, and the way that Klages developes the relationships between the women across the course of Passing Strange is slow and very human: friendships formed in a single meeting, a social gathering of Sapphic sistren, out of which comes a tangle of friendships, relationships, and events. Things move quickly and slowly by turn, beautifully developing; Klages writes with a sensitive, emotionally deft hand about exploring one’s own and each other’s feelings in the early days of a relationship, as well as the comfort and familiarity of the latter stages of one. The plot really takes a backstage to the relationship; indeed, the plot is the relationship, really, with a few events that add tangles to it, but even there everything is centred on relationships, mainly that between Haskel and Emily.

Klages isn’t writing history, but she is writing realism; Passing Strange spends a certain amount of time on looking at the effects of the strictures of the day, and what those strictures were. Things like the three-garment test (of whether women were breaking the law by wearing men’s clothing), the police attitude to gay establishments, and general social attitudes; Klages is far from sympathetic to these bigotries, but she is sympathetic to the women who have to deal with them, and there’s a beautiful critique, worked in throughout the narrative, of the way heteronormative society tries to force queers into the closet.

All this history is surrounded by a wonderful frame story of Helen in her old age, in the contemporary world; it’s a bittersweet story, but also pulls cackles from the reader, as Klages ensures people get their comeuppance, as Passing Strange deals out appropriate ends and ensures some rather fun loose ends are tied up – and points out certain modern hypocrisies, to boot. It’s a framing story that really drives home the magical-realist elements of the novel, which are essential to the ending but for the rest of it are just a little extra flavour Klages adds beautifully and, seemingly, purely for the whimsy of it.

Passing Strange is a beautiful, wonderful gem of a story, a lesbian romance that really feels sweet and gentle and happy; Klages has crafted a real joy of a story. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a Diego Rivera cameo, so how can you resist?

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The Djinn Falls In Love eds. Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin

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Imagine a world filled with fierce, fiery beings, hiding in our shadows, in our dreams, under our skins. Eavesdropping and exploring; savaging our bodies, saving our souls. They are monsters, saviours, victims, childhood friends.

Some have called them genies: these are the Djinn. And they are everywhere. On street corners, behind the wheel of a taxi, in the chorus, between the pages of books. Every language has a word for them. Every culture knows their traditions. Every religion, every history has them hiding in their dark places. There is no part of the world that does not know them.


They are the Djinn. They are among us.
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The Djinn Falls In Love is one of those anthologies one hears of long before it ever comes out; containing a mixture of luminaries of the field (Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Amal El-Mohtar) and rising stars, including people whose profile in the Anglosphere isn’t high yet, it crosses a mixture of different approaches to a singular subject matter – although I slightly miss the original title, Djinnthology. But how does this set of stories, themed around the inherently mercurial subject matter of the djinn, come together?

As a whole, the anthology has an interesting shape; opening with the titular poem by Hermes, it balances in the middle with a prose-poem by Amal El-Mohtar, which seems to also be the point after which it shifts from the more mythic stories to the more traditionally Western speculative fiction model. The first half of The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t exclusively the more poetic approach to stories, but it’s certainly a theme there in a way it isn’t in the second half; thus Kamila Shamsie’s beautiful, sad tale, ‘The Congregation’, shares space with the very 1,001 Nights-reminiscent ‘Majnun’ by Helene Wecker, another tale of tragic love with a very different narrative trajectory; both are about identity and what one has to sacrifice for one’s own independent identity, and both are beautifully shaped around a kind of emotional core of personal singularity. J.Y. Yang’s ‘Glass Lights’, on the other hand, is almost more defined by an absence of self; it’s a very beautiful, quiet, subtle kind of tragedy, of selflessness and personal obliteration, amazingly simple and subtle and powerful. The bookend story to this half of the collection, on the other hand, is the triumphant ‘A Tale Of Ash In Seven Birds’ by Amal El-Mohtar, a prose-poem in seven segments, a kind of building beauty and power, with shifting voice and amazingly beautiful writing. It is a stunningly self-contained piece of absolute rising beauty.

Not everything in this first half connects, though. The Djinn Falls In Love includes some mythological stories which feel a little obvious; Claire North’s ‘Hurren and the Djinn’, with its explicit connection to the 1,001 Nights, tells the reader its obvious and inevitable ending way before it manages to actually reach that point. Maria Dahvana Headley’s ‘Black Powder’, on the other hand, just feels like it would work better in the second half of the book… after a substantial rewrite; it tends towards women as objects of violence, not subjects, and feels overextended and somehow consistently fails to connect emotionally across its length.

The second half of the anthology is stories that are much more traditionally in the Western speculative fiction mode, and much less mythological in feeling, on the whole; the exception is Nnedi Okorafor’s beautiful closer, ‘History’, which straddles the line between the two modes fantastically and is a really beautiful little tale of unexpected consequences and of power and choices. Similarly, Catherine Faris King’s ‘Queen of Sheba’ is a brilliant slipstream story, which reminded me of Daniel José Older’s Bone Street Rhumba, where magic appears around the lived experiences of people in marginalised communities, and comes from those communities. Taking a very different approach, Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Bring Your Own Spoon’ developes from a fun, seemingly quite whimsical story to a very profound piece of writing about living on the edge of the acceptable and respectable, and of community; it’s a powerful story that really does take its whimsy seriously. ‘Reap’ by Sami Shah, on the other hand, starts grimly serious and stays that way; told from the point of view of the team flying a drone over Pakistan, it really drives home the strange way wars are fought by industrialised nations, so divorced from the reality of the people they effect.

Two stories in this section fail in a very similar way; both James Smythe’s ‘The Sand in the Glass is Right’ and Kirsty Logan’s ‘Spite House’ felt like they really needed to establish a much stronger emotional connection with the reader to work. Both are stories about unintended consequences and misdirected wishes, and both feel a little padded, as if they really could have been trimmed and made a clearer, more powerful version of themselves; this is especially surprising in Logan’s case, given some of her beautiful past work that would stand alongside much of the first half of this volume. K. J. Parker’s story, ‘Message in a Bottle’, meanwhile, feels rather like anyone who has read a few Parker stories has read it before; it follows what is now a familiar pattern and model from him, without really deviating in any interesting directions. It’s undeniably well done, but feels a little divorced from the rest of this collection.

Finally, ‘Duende 2077’ by Jamal Mahjoub is the story in The Djinn Falls In Love that really fell apart for me. Set in a near-future world ruled by an Islamic Caliphate, with a Londonistan, regular beheadings of criminals, and a corrupt, hypocritical elite who indulge in haram pleasures they deny others, it felt like a fantasy ripped from a Daily Mail headline; in a longer, more developed work, that might work, but as it is, it feels like the setting is a bunch of Islamophobic tropes slammed together. That’s a shame, because the noirish political thriller plot deserved a lot better.

The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t a perfect anthology; it’s got, like all anthologies, its hits and its misses. But Shurin and Murad have assembled here a really strong collection of stories, and the standouts really are outstanding – this anthology is worth the price of admission for El-Mohtar, Okorafor, Shamsie, Wecker and Yang alone!

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy received for review from the publisher, Solaris, at work. I am friends with Amal El-Mohtar and J.Y. Yang, who each have a story in the anthology, as aforementioned.

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All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

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The first book in an exciting YA trilogy, this is the story of two best friends on the verge of a terrifying divide when they begin to encounter a cast of strange and mythical characters.

Set against the lush, magical backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, two inseparable best friends who have grown up like sisters—the charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora and the devoted, soulful, watchful narrator—find their bond challenged for the first time ever when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them. Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They’re not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all. The real and the mystical; the romantic and the heartbreaking all begin to swirl together, carrying the two on journey that is both enthralling and terrifying.

And it’s up to the narrator to protect the people she loves—if she can.
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As a former student of the Classics and someone fascinated by the genre of academia known as Reception Studies, a book that is at least Orpheus-adjacent is always going to fascinate me; as part of a series whose title is explicitly Ovidian, McCarry was always going to get my attention. But what does All Our Pretty Songs do with that attention…?

All Our Pretty Songs is beautifully written, that’s definitely true. The language is on its face very plain, simple, and blunt; McCarry doesn’t use the lyrical approach much fantasy applies to create its beauty, and isn’t a poetic writer. However, she is a fantastic prose artist; using a simpler language and a plainer prose style to realise some really fantastic visuals and settings, and to set a mood of euphoria, despair, drunkenness etc. There’s a very well controlled approach to voice on display, and some of the best passages of the book are where McCarry in using run-on sentences and chaotic grammar to create a psychedelic sense of the world.

However, this is where my appreciation for All Our Pretty Songs starts to break down a bit. The characters are a little flat, in part because our protagonist never really cares about anyone else’s wants or desires much; instead, she imprints her belief about what they want onto them, assumes their motives and minds. That would work better if we were shown at any time other than the twist that she was wrong; and might work better if the protagonist was a little more interesting herself, rather than so bent on defining herself against the people around her, and by comparison to them, so we never really get a good sense of anyone, and no emotional relationship feels particularly impactful. It also doesn’t help that McCarry flirts a lot with queerness without ever coming out and making it explicit; Aurora and our narrator share a lot of kisses for people who are apparently completely straight, and there’s a lot of queer-coding without ever once having queer desire among the protagonists a reality.

The plot is pretty simple; romance followed by katabasis, as one might expect from an Orphic retelling. All Our Pretty Songs leans pretty hard on the romance aspect, and the impending tragedy of the (double-)katabasis, for its emotional impact; everything is built up with a sense of inevitable tragedy built very explicitly into the story and writing, so that everything is tinged with doom, but that doesn’t make it powerful and portentous, only far too drawn out. It might work better if the romance felt a little more real, but it all feels a little too storybook; McCarry’s failure to create characters, through the narrative lens, who feel like people really shows here.

In the end, this is about 150 pages of set up for a 60 page pay off; intending to be a meditation on love, on ambition, on competing desires and drives, it ends up without the heft to make that work, and without the audience connection to really successfully drive it, at least for this audience. All Our Pretty Songs has great potential; it’s intensely frustrating that it doesn’t live up to it.

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