Saturday, March 18, 2023

Belladonna by Adalyn Grace


ALL THE STARS AND TEETH was overly written and felt like the work of an author who was trying to prove herself. BELLADONNA, on the other hand, feels like the work of an author who knows that she doesn't have to. That she is, in fact, it. I can't think of many authors where I gave one of their books a one star review only to come back and give one of their later ones a five, but Adalyn Grace is that rare case and she pried all five of those stars from my stingy little fingers with BELLADONNA.

This is everything I never knew I wanted in YA fantasy and I honestly don't think the reviews do it justice. I mean, with YA fantasy being a dime a dozen these days, and everyone off to the races to write The Next Big Thing, what makes this one stand out? What is it like? Well, BELLADONNA is beautifully written and features an awkward, sort of Tim Burton-y heroine, like a female counterpart to Victor Van Dort from Corpse Bride. The writing is beautiful and ornate without being overdone and it has a wonderfully Gothic pseudo-Victorian setting replete with ghosts, poison, and murder. There's a very cinematic feel to both the writing and the story-telling and it's darkly whimsical and utterly addicting, because even though it doesn't really do anything different, the characters and the setting are all so vivid that they seem to come alive.

Signa has changed hands multiple times every since her mother was Red Wedding'd at a baby shower. Signa was the only survivor but Death left his mark on her and now she can consume poison without succumbing to it and people around her have the disconcerting habit of dropping dead. When her aunt dies, Signa taken in by her uncle as ward, where she will live with her cousins, Blythe and Percy. Just one problem, their mother was recently Red Wedding'd herself and Blythe, with her mysterious illness, appears close to death herself. And instead of living out the days to her inheritance peacefully in the countryside, Signa ends up involved in a dastardly murder plot where she, and everyone she holds dear, may be in danger. Also, the family is in-fighting over petty and non-petty dramas, and the uncle, mad with grief (or guilt?) is hosting elaborate parties like he thinks he's Jay Gatsby, or something.

So let's talk about why this book was great. The writing was good. The setting was wonderful-- creepy and atmospheric, with body horror and real stakes. Honestly, there were some moments in this book that made me glad I wasn't reading it at night. The heroine was delightfully awkward and it wasn't portrayed as too quirky or twee. I could sense her inability to fit in and her loneliness, and the author showed us instead of telling us. Part of the book is watching Signa grow and blossom, like a dark orchid, in a hothouse full of society people who don't quite know how to deal with her. 

There's also a love triangle, of sorts, and some genuinely sensual scenes. Sometimes sex in YA can be yuck, but the heroine is older (19) and the author did such a good job making things romantic and vague, rather than explicit. I think the last YA book I read that managed this balance so well was Holly Black's CRUEL PRINCE. I just love me a really good romance, okay? Especially if it makes me swoon and the hero is just the tiny bit dangerous. Which is maybe why this just kind of feels like a love ode to goth girl media. There's elements of Labyrinth, Tim Burton, Secret Garden, classic fairytales... basically everything I loved as a kid but grown up and wearing a fancy dress and falling in love for the first time.

Someone needs to make this a movie. And also give me the sequel. Not necessarily in that order.

5 out of 5 stars

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