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Book: “Gallant by V.E. Schwab
Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, March 2022
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: 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?
Review: Though some of her books have been a bit of a miss for me, V.E. Schwab is firmly on my “must read” list. Even those books that I didn’t love still always had superb writing and creative fantastical ideas. And then there’s the fact that these less liked books are far and away the more rare for me. Typically, I’ve really adored her writing and own several of her books outright. But when a book hasn’t hit for me, it’s typically come from her YA fare. So, while I was super excited to see a new book coming out, I was a bit more nervous than I typically would be when I saw that this was marketed as YA. Luckily, that wasn’t an issue here! Is that because I’d argue this might not be YA?
Olivia dreams of what every orphan child dreams of: a home and a family who want her. But at age 14, she’s well aware that all she has left in this world, truly, is her mother’s cryptic journal. So no one is more surprised than she when a letter suddenly arrives at her orphanage calling Olivia home to Gallant. But when she arrives, though she does discover family, she realizes that not only did her unwelcoming cousin Mathew not send the letter, but that he seems almost desperate for her to leave as soon as possible. When she stumbles into a shadowy world mirroring Gallant itself, she begins to suspect that there is more to the old house and her family’s history than she ever could have imagined.
This book was marketed as a Gothic “The Secret Garden,” and I can definitely see that all over this book. It’s also notable that V.E. Schwab is something of an old hand at penning these type of overlaying, mirrored worlds. This same concept is at the heart of her popular “Shades of Magic” trilogy, so it was fun seeing her return to that same fantasy element. But, true to her being a very talented author, she does so in a way that it is original and stands completely separate from that trilogy.
For one thing, I’d argue that this book is more Middle Grade than YA. The protagonist, Oliva, is definitely on the younger side of teenage-dom. And, not that all YA books require romance by any means, but the story itself is fully devoid of any love story, something that is rare in typical YA fantasy fare. The themes of the story, family, home, the understanding of choosing the way we move forward into a more adult world, are all of the sort that I think would appeal greatly to Middle Grade audiences. Some of the fantasy elements are a bit dark, but I’d think the average middle grader would be up for it.
Olivia was an excellent main character. She is a character who has grown up without the ability to communicate verbally. She can hear but must use sign language or writing to speak with those around her. It’s telling of Schwab’s abilities that she was able to write such a complex character and story while relying on minimal dialogue. Instead, she finds a variety of ways for Olivia to communicate. But while doing this, the author also explores the way that those without a voice can be easily silenced and dismissed, speaking to a power imbalance that many may not even be aware of.
I really liked Gallant and its shadow-world as well. The Gothic overtones were high, with secret passages, moldering rooms hinting of past grandeur slowly sinking into decrepitude, and haunted forms flitting in and out of rooms. The history of the house and Olivia’s family was also very interesting. I especially appreciated the use of a selection of abstract artwork that is sprinkled throughout the story to add another layer to the story unfolding on the page.
I did have to drop the rating down a bit by the time I got to the end, however. While the quality of the storytelling, world-building, and characterization were high throughout, by the time I finished the last page I was left with a sense of feeling a bit unmoored. When I think back on the book, I’m not sure I can see a real point to the story. That, and the fact that I feel like the ending didn’t so much conclude a story as re-set the board. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, honestly. But I feel like Schwab somehow missed the mark a bit here.
Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. I definitely think it’s worth checking out for fans of Gothic fantasy. It’s also a great stand-alone story and one that doesn’t include a love story at its heart. I think it probably veers closer to Middle Grade than YA, but at a certain point that distinction blends to a point where both would likely enjoy it equally.
Rating 8: Splendidly creepy while also reflecting on deeper topics such as the choice involved in home and family.