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Book: “Juniper & Thorn” by Ava Reid
Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, June 2022
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: A gruesome curse. A city in upheaval. A monster with unquenchable appetites.
Marlinchen and her two sisters live with their wizard father in a city shifting from magic to industry. As Oblya’s last true witches, she and her sisters are little more than a tourist trap as they treat their clients with archaic remedies and beguile them with nostalgic charm. Marlinchen spends her days divining secrets in exchange for rubles and trying to placate her tyrannical, xenophobic father, who keeps his daughters sequestered from the outside world. But at night, Marlinchen and her sisters sneak out to enjoy the city’s amenities and revel in its thrills, particularly the recently established ballet theater, where Marlinchen meets a dancer who quickly captures her heart.
As Marlinchen’s late-night trysts grow more fervent and frequent, so does the threat of her father’s rage and magic. And while Oblya flourishes with culture and bustles with enterprise, a monster lurks in its midst, borne of intolerance and resentment and suffused with old-world power. Caught between history and progress and blood and desire, Marlinchen must draw upon her own magic to keep her city safe and find her place within it.
Review: Unlike “For the Throne,” this book isn’t a direct sequel to the “Red Riding Hood’ re-telling that came before it. That said, it does feel kind of funny reading two follow-up books to two versions of the same fairytale that I read exactly a year ago. However, this is only a companion novel, set in the same world as “The Wolf and the Woodsman,” and instead focuses on retelling a different, dark fairytale, “The Juniper Tree.” I didn’t know really anything about this original tale before starting this book, so I was curious to see how things would play out!
Marlinchen’s father is cursed to never be full, no matter how much he eats, and to never feel rested, no matter how much he sleeps. And for their part, she and her two sisters are also cursed along with him and he refuses to let them out of his house. Instead, he uses their various magical gifts to support himself and their home. But Marlinchen dreams of more, of going out beyond the gates of her cursed home. And finally, she does it. There she discovers thrills and mysteries, but most especially, she discovers the ballet and its star dancer, a beautiful, charming young man. But something dark also haunts the streets, and as Marlinchen tries to keep secret her growing connection to the ballet dancer, she begins to suspect that this darkness may be coming from her own home.
So, I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, to start with the positives, there is no denying that Reid is a strong, poetic author. She has a knack for turning a phrase in a way that catches the eye and imagination; I re-read several passages throughout the story. She also knows how to unspool a fairytale in a way that feel fresh and new, but still has that undefinable quality that makes it a fairytale at its heart. There’s a balance, always, to be struck between the beauty and pain found in fairytales. But, while she seemed to hit that mark with “The Wolf and the Woodsman,” I’m less sure that the balance is quite right here.
To be fair, on Goodreads this book is tagged as “fantasy” and “horror.” Sometimes these genres can overlap quite a lot, and I generally dismiss the “horror” tag as simply a heads-up that this will be a darker story. And yet, I wasn’t prepared for just how dark this book was. Indeed, it would fully fall under the category of “horror” all on its own. While I’m not typically an avid horror fan, I can read and enjoy it. So it wasn’t the surprising darkness of this book that had me questioning.
Instead, it seemed to be the pointlessness of some of it that bothered me, the sheer shock value for the sake of shock value at the heart of some of the more disturbing scenes. There were more than a few instances when something horrific would happen or be described, but that scene or action never lead to any personal growth, reflection, or even important movement of the plot itself. This is the kind of horror and darkness I can’t get behind. It gives the reader no pay-off for sitting through uncomfortable, dark scenes and instead makes some of it feel performative and ugly in a different way.
To end on another good note, however. I did like the main character and most of her story. Again, there were disturbing aspects of her story that I don’t feel were fully explored or justified to the reader. But, as she does have a distinct arc throughout the story, these I was better able to understand than some of the other horror aspects. The romance, such as it was, felt a bit too insta-love, with the connection forming fast and hard between these two. If anything, it was insta-lust more than love. Again, there was this weird obsession with adding a dirty-feeling shimmer to even the love story.
There’s no denying the high quality of the author’s writing, at this point. But this book did make me question some of her storytelling prowess. I will admit, however, that fans of horror in general might enjoy this more than I did. Fans of the first book may want to check this out, but they should go in with eyes wide open not to take that “horror” tag lightly.
Rating 7: Solid building blocks were undermined by a strange penchant for reveling in the darker aspects of the world, seemingly without much concern for the relevance of such things to the story itself.