I put a lot of pressure on this (very) little book. Because while I adored Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, I thought that, since then, everything she has written was lacking in many ways. Either she clearly didn’t have a clue where to go with her plot, how to develop her characters, or what to do with those (granted) cool ideas she has. I wanted to give her one more chance, this time with a Middle Grade adventure that sounded intriguing. Look, it wasn’t irredeemably shit, but it was one of the most useless, plotless, unlovingly told stories I’ve read recently and that’s just sad.
by V.E. Schwab
illustrated by Manuel Šumberac
Published: Titan Books, 2022
Hardcover: 310 pages
My rating: 4/10
Opening line: The master of thehouse stands at the garden wall.
Everything casts a shadow. Even the world we live in. And as with every shadow, there is a place where it must touch. A seam, where the shadow meets its source.
Olivia Prior has grown up in Merilance School for girls, and all she has of her past is her mother’s journal—which seems to unravel into madness. Then, a letter invites Olivia to come home—to Gallant. Yet when Olivia arrives, no one is expecting her. But Olivia is not about to leave the first place that feels like home, it doesn’t matter if her cousin Matthew is hostile or if she sees half-formed ghouls haunting the hallways.
Olivia knows that Gallant is hiding secrets, and she is determined to uncover them. When she crosses a ruined wall at just the right moment, Olivia finds herself in a place that is Gallant—but not. The manor is crumbling, the ghouls are solid, and a mysterious figure rules over all. Now Olivia sees what has unraveled generations of her family, and where her father may have come from.
Olivia has always wanted to belong somewhere, but will she take her place as a Prior, protecting our world against the Master of the House? Or will she take her place beside him?
This book is 50% filler. Yes, I’m starting my review with this information because I think it’s only fair that everyone who’s thinking about buying it, knows what it is they’re buying. That doesn’t mean this is a bad book, just that you’re only getting about 150 pages worth of original writing, the other 150 pages are repetitions of that same writing, over and over again. Oh yes, and very pretty illustrations that also repeat after almost every chapter. And in the middle because I guess Schwab wanted desperately to publish a novel even when she only had a novella at hand…
So what’s this all about? It starts so well that I honestly thought this would be the book that made me want to follow Schwab’s career after all. Olivia Prior lives in an orphanage/school where she is being bullied (but only until she fights back!) and where she can see ghouls (and only she can see them). She is also mute which makes her life even lonelier than any orphan’s life already is. The one matron who taught her sign language doesn’t work there anymore and the others never bothered. The only consolation Olivia has is her mother’s journal which she reads over and over again, to the point of knowing it by heart.
Can you guess which parts of the real-world book Gallant are the repetitive ones? Because yes, it is Olivia’s mother’s journal. Every chapter has at least a few lines from that journal in it, repeated ad nauseum and mostly for no apparent reason. Then we get to read entire pages of that journal. Then later on in the book Gallant we get to read the entirety of that journal, even though we’ve already read ALL OF IT before, just split into snippets. The journal is also filled with illustrations that repeat equally as often as the written text does. As beautiful as I find these ink splotchy, ethereal looking images, I don’t quite see the point in printing each one of them four times within the same novel…
Anyway, the plot kicks off when Olivia receives a letter from a formerly unknown uncle who calls her to the family estate, Gallant, the one place her mother’s journal warned her to stay away from. So far, so intriguing. It is when she arrives at Gallant that it becomes apparent Schwab actually has no story to tell, no plot to follow, and her heart somewhere else when it comes to the themes she apparently tried to incorporate. What Olivia finds at Gallant is a very unfriendly cousin and two elderly housekeepers. Edgar and Hannah are very nice to Olivia, she explores the house a bit, it’s all kind of eerie and strange and there’s a sculpture of the cover image (two houses on a contraption, exact mirror images of one another), and of course ghouls. Then nothing happens for about 50 pages (which by this book’s standard is a lot!).
Eventually, Olivia explores that other Gallant – I mean look at the cover, nothing that happens in this book is in any way a spoiler or a surprise – and I guess this was meant to be creepy and atmospheric but it is written with so little love, constantly using the same descriptions over and over, that I felt absolutely nothing. When you meet a character who is called Death (although how Olivia got that idea, nobody knows, the book is not terribly logical either), maybe don’t describe him the exact same way three times in a row. And maybe add some real stakes to a supposedly dangerous adventure. And, just an idea, make that adventure last longer than three lines, so at least some tension can be built up and we readers can feel something – anything – for the characters. Sorry, not in this book.
The characters are just as bland and one-dimensional as the sad excuse for a plot. Olivia at least is interesting in that she doesn’t take the other orphan’s shit but fights back in quite original ways. But that is, unfortunately, all that sets her apart. Otherwise, she is a blank piece of paper. Hannah, Edgar, and Matthew have no personalities that go beyond one characteristic per person, yet by the end of this book I was supposed to care for them? To see them as a sort of found family?! Forgive me, but it takes a little longer than 25 pages to build up that kind of relationship. Or a much more skilled writer.
The plot is barely there, then some last minute plan emerges, which is followed by a ludicrous and utterly stupid ending which left me super unsatisfied. I mean, for fucks’ sake, if we’re reading a story about some family curse or a battle between good and evil, and if you’re unwilling to resolve that battle or lift the curse, at least tell us more about how it came to be, why it’s there, what’s going on, or anything really. This book just ends with some forced (and emotionally lacking) drama, a few lines that are meant to sound deep and meaningful but are completely empty because this entire book is empty, and then it’s just over. No resolution to anything, no background story, not even a particularly interesting view of the future.
Disregarding all else and just looking at the fantasy elements, the exact same lack of care was taken when it comes to that. Olivia can see ghouls, which is special because nobody else can. Except at some point at the end when, suddenly, people can. Without explanation or even taking much notice. It’s never really explained which parts of magic work in which version of Gallant, why ghouls even exist or if everyone who dies becomes one, what exactly they can do, and generally which rules apply in which version of Gallant. I personally don’t mind if magic doesn’t make sense – it’s magic, after all – but it should be internally consistent within one book at least.
The reason this didn’t get a lower rating is twofold. First, the writing – what little of it there is – is actually nice. I enjoyed the descriptions of the orphanage and Olivia’s life there, I generally liked how Gallant is written about. I just wish I didn’t have to read the exact same lines and descriptions twenty times and instead got more original Schwab words on the same amount of pages. The second reason is that I loved reading about a protagonist with a disability, especially a girl who couldn’t speak. I’ve never read about someone like Olivia and the only times I managed to feel anything much for the characters was when someone turned away from her and ignored her “speaking” with her hands. That frustration must be brutal and I, at least, thought Schwab did a good job describing it.
Does this mean this is the end of reading Schwab for me? Well, I have her Vicious books still on my TBR, so I’ll give those a go sometime. But I’m definitely staying far away from anything new she publishes. There is always a hype, simply because it’s her, and then it all just ends in disappointment for me. I’m not saying I’ll never read her books again, but if I do, it will be after reading lots of critical reviews and careful consideration. You can count me OFF the hype train, that’s for sure.
MY RATING: 4/10 – Bad