Haunting Grounds: As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended is Robin Talley’s third novel, following Lies We Tell Ourselves and What We Left Behind, and it’s her first in a speculative vein. As in her previous work, As I Descended is a young adult book with queer girl protagonists; in this case, Maria and Lily are a couple at an exclusive boarding school, but aren’t public about their relationship. This is, however, just one of the conflicts in the book—which is perhaps best described as “lesbian boarding school Macbeth,” complete with ghosts, predictions, and the twists of a traditional revenge-tragedy.

Maria is in need of the coveted Kinglsey Prize, a full scholarship ride to a university of her choice, to be able to attend college with Lily after their graduation from Acheron. However, Delilah—the most popular girl in their class—is at the top of the prize list, even though she doesn’t need the financial support at all. Maria and Lily, with the help of spirits that Maria can communicate with, hatch a plan to knock her down a peg. The problem is that the ghosts might not be as neutral or helpful as our protagonists would like to believe.

It’s unfortunate, but in the end, I wasn’t particularly impressed by this novel—despite the fact that it has, on the surface, all of the things that tend to grab me as a reader. The plot drives the text in a manner that doesn’t give Talley much room to explore the world or characters. While there are moments that are deeply compelling, such as at the end when Maria realizes that the spirits have never been on her side, but as a whole, I was disappointed and expected more from this particular book. “Diverse queer young adult Shakespeare riffs set at a boarding school” sounds like it would be the best thing I’d read this month, but that wasn’t the case.

One of the significant issues with As I Descended is Talley’s prose, which is perfectly passable in terms of its structure but is so thoroughly prone to over-explanation that it frequently feels like watching the author move a set of dolls around a set while telling the reader how those dolls are meant to be reacting. There’s little sense of internal conflict that isn’t flatly given as an explanation, and there is nothing left for the reader to parse or immerse themselves in. There are scenes where the action, at least, transcends the problem of telling—but those aren’t frequent enough to change the overall experience of reading the text.

There’s also something that itches at me about the characters, as a result of this flatness in the prose: because of that doll-like quality, the intentional diversity of the cast feels a bit less then authentic or well-realized and more like a set of boxes to tick off. Lily is disabled; Maria is Hispanic; Brandon is fat; Mateo has conservative parents. But instead of these being thorough parts of their personalities—things that feel like the source of self and conflict and are traits that interact with and feed back into the social world around them—it feels like these traits were just chosen arbitrarily and tacked on.

I’d have appreciated, for example, getting more of a sense of the function of class and cash at Acheron; instead, it’s sort of mentioned, but rarely serves a purpose narratively or socially. The same for race—Talley’s worldbuilding notes that Acheron was opened as an option for wealthy whites to send their children away from desegregated schools, and that it’s on the grounds of an old plantation, but this too doesn’t have much development in the text. The most interesting characters, to me, were actually tertiary as best: Austin and his little sister Felicia, who have about as much development as our protagonists but seem to have more potential internality simply because we aren’t given the rundown on their motivations like a dossier.

(Spoilers ahead.)

There’s also something hard to pinpoint, but the character of Brandon is an example: while the book is attempting to challenge tropes and be inclusive in some specific directions, it falls down hard on the job at others. Brandon manages, even in a queer novel that acknowledges people think of him this way, to step into the narrative role of “gay best friend who dies” for a female protagonist. If he’d had more development, or been used as a single thing other than a plot device, this wouldn’t be an issue for me—it’s a revenge tragedy, I expect people to die left and right. It’s the sense that these characters are archetypes rather than people, and in this case, that archetype is not one I appreciate seeing replicated in a book that seems to be trying to avoid those tropes.

Our queer girl protagonists, of course, also both die—while Delilah, in a twist, survives through the end; she wakes from her coma when Maria kills herself to save Mateo from her own machinations. I suspect that if Delilah hadn’t survived either, this would have felt natural and like the conclusion of a proper revenge-tragedy, with Mateo the only surviving member of the central plot cadre. He was, after all, Brandon’s boyfriend and the goodhearted heir to the throne, in the Shakespearean drama sense. Delilah’s survival feels, however, a bit cheap, and it also makes me feel very strange about the deaths of Maria, Lily, and Brandon.

In short, As I Descended is trying—but it’s trying rather too hard, and attempting to telegraph it all to the reader as clearly and directly as possible rather than letting the reader do the work. While the ghosts and the boarding school setting are intriguing, and there are moments where cultural details like Maria and Mateo’s shared knowledge of La Llorna come through, overall this one didn’t work for me.

As I Descended is available now from HarperTeen.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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