It’s been quite a month. (I mean, Leonard Cohen is dead. Not enough for 2016 to take David Bowie, it had to take Leonard Cohen as well. How do we go on?) In this time of grief and heartbreak, books can be a comfort. Let us hope that they continue to be so.
Robin Talley’s As I Descended is a novel I really wanted to like a lot more than I ended up doing. How could I not want to like it, after all? It was described to me as “queer Macbeth set in an American boarding school,” and I don’t know about you, but that sounds interesting to me.
Maria Lyon and her closeted girlfriend Lily Boiten are part of a golden circle in their final year at the exclusive Acheron Academy. There’s just one problem: Maria and Lily won’t be able to attend the same university unless Maria wins the exclusive Cawdor Kingsley Prize—and Maria isn’t likely to: the front runner for that is Delilah Dufrey, most golden of all golden children, student president, captain of the soccer team, future valedictorian and future homecoming queen.
Well, maybe two problems. Maria can see ghosts, and Acheron Academy is haunted. It’s an accident with an Ouija board that begins the real trouble, and soon, egged on by malevolent ghosts, Lily and Maria have hatched a plan to bring down Delilah and see Maria win the prize. As I Descended is a tragedy based on a tragedy, so it’s really unsurprising that this works out well for absolutely no-one.
Including, unfortunately, the book itself. While the characters are moderately interesting, not to mention diverse, it’s rapidly clear that the most interesting characters are also the most doomed. That pretty much ruins the suspense, and the novel’s voice is too flat to carry the narrative along on its own.
Which is a shame, because I could really have used an excellent queer ghost story, this month.
Speaking of excellent and queer, though, this seems like the place to mention that Gail Carriger’s novella Romancing the Inventor, set in the same world as her Parasol Protectorate novels, is a surprisingly sweet little romance. Imogene Hale is a parlormaid in a vampire hive. Genevieve Lefoux is an unconventional inventor working for said hive. Imogene is very into Genevieve, but Genevieve is chivalrously unwilling to take advantage of her perceived position of power relative to Imogene. And she’s determined—or too distracted—to realise that Imogene is more than willing. The tension in this story is largely comic, albeit with a few dark moments: will Genevieve realise that there’s nothing wrong with falling in love and acting on it before Imogene loses her patience entirely? (Spoiler: it’s a romance. Of course she does.) It’s a story that’s touching and cheerful and basically like dessert: I recommend it for anyone who likes romance and needs cheering up.
Rhonda Mason’s Cloak of War, sequel to The Empress Game, isn’t a romance. It’s not queer, either, so it may be the odd book out in this post. (It does have daggers.) It’s not quite the same level of completely batshit space opera fun as the first novel in the series. There’s no gladiatorial princess-fighting in this one. I’m a little disappointed. But there are conspiracies, impersonations, and an ancient ship in the middle of a mysterious asteroid field. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in there, or where it’s going, but it’s still pretty fun.