Friday, May 15, 2020

Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles

Reading this book is like eating a cake covered in molded fondant. At first, you think, "Oh, this looks quite pretty and nice! I can't wait to eat it." But then as soon as you bite in, you realize that it actually doesn't taste all that nice and it's all just empty, molded sugar. The writing in WHERE DREAMS DESCEND is lovely, with some truly beautiful passages, but it doesn't quite flow naturally and there's a calculated edge to this prose that ends up coming across as overly ornate at times, to the point where "he picked up his cup of coffee" might turn into "his elegantly manicured hands lifted his porcelain cup with a neat flick of his wrist, causing the drink to slosh menacingly against the sides."

Nobody was rooting for WHERE DREAMS DESCEND like I was. I'm trash for Moulin Rouge! and I'm pretty sure there's a jar floating around here overflowing with quarters that I've had to put into it for mentioning Phantom of the Opera way too many times in conversation. A marriage between these two in a sort of pseudo-historical costume fantasy novel seemed like a really, really fun idea. Plus, the synopsis of this book teased at a dark eroticism that so many YA books lack. I was absolutely THRILLED when I got my ARC. Thrilled.

I actually first started reading this book all the way back in March with my friend Heather, who presciently bailed. I toiled on for two months, but kept putting the book down and forgetting about it. The opening is great-- Kallia is a girl living in a place called the Hellfire House, giving magical stage performances. Her mentor, who might also be her captor, is an incredibly handsome and dangerously powerful magician named Jack. One day, she finds out that he's betrayed her in the worst way and flees to the nearby city of Glorian to seek her fortune in a magical competition.

And thus, the story begins:

I think it might actually just be easier to list out my qualms in bullet form.

Like Phantom of the Opera, there is a love triangle. Ugh, ugh, ugh. So Jack is obviously the Phantom and the Raoul character is one of the judges of the magic competition, a tortured ex-magician named Demarco, who is basically a sad boy in a suit. Like PoTO, the heroine doesn't have any romantic interactions with the man I wanted her to. Demarco just came across as a pale imitation of Jack, who I actually really liked. She also has a male assistant named Aaros she becomes close with, and I'm not really clear if he's completely platonic or might reveal himself as a love interest, in which case, this could very well turn into a love pyramid.

Kallia is a strong heroine but no other woman is allowed to rival her. This is a very male-centric fantasy world. Women aren't allowed to do magic, so naturally it's quite scandalous that Kallia is as powerful as she is, and much of the novel is her fighting against the ingrained sexism of this world. This also means that we don't see any other strong female characters, unless you count the Rita Skeeter reporter who shows up in the last quarter, or her sort-of friend, a circus attraction character with a unique affliction. The only other character we see a lot of is the daughter of Glorian's mayor, Janette, who is portrayed as a shrieking, giggling, party-obsessed, man-stealing hussy who hates Kallia for being "awesome" and slut-shames or glares her as much as possible.

The magic doesn't really make sense? I feel like this book is a bit like THE NIGHT CIRCUS in that there's no solid magic system. Magic just happens and it looks pretty (or is scary), but there aren't really spells and the learning process is confusing and unclear. I was also really confused about the world-building, and by the end of the book, I was no clearer on why mirrors were dangerous, or what the mysterious forces in Glorian were, or how all of this magic actually worked. It was... confusing.

The writing is gorgeous but goes way over the top. I address this in my introductory paragraph. I do think this author has a lot of potential and part of this might be the usual "debut jitters," but it really distracted from the narrative at times. Which brings me to the last point.

It felt like this book was way longer than it needed to be. Which is partially due to the overwritten passages, but also due to the fact that because there really isn't a plot apart from "Kallia wants to be the best magician ever but mysterious bad things keep happening." I would have liked to see a tighter narrative with a story line that flowed linearly, instead of just kind of flowing wherever it pleased.

I might read the second book in this series and I'm certainly curious to see how this author grows as she continues to write, but this was not a favorite of mine. Others might like it, though. It definitely has that "pretty fiction" fantasy vibe that has made authors like Renee Ahdieh so popular. I can see this becoming very polarized among its audience, with those that love it really loving it, and those who don't dropping it without finishing. I checked out some of the preliminary reviews for this book, positive and negative, and to my shock, I actually wholeheartedly agreed with the points of both. So read the reviews and see what people are saying, and then decide if this book is for you.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

2.5 out of 5 stars

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