Enter: Edgar’s muse. Yes, his muse, Lenore, comes into his life as the physical embodiment of a grotesque drawing, there to provoke and bully Poe into accepting his affinity for death and all things Gothic. Lenore can be seen not only by Eddy, but by everyone, and as she moves through his world, she unsettles everyone because of her ghastly appearance and her disturbing behavior. The novel moves through the alternating perspectives of Poe and Lenore, and her presence is a definite reminder of the place of women (and, particularly, dead women) in Poe’s stories, of women’s morbid hold on his imagination and of “the beauty in horror” (loc. 376).
In The Raven’s Tale, Winters takes the historical facts of Poe’s life and embeds them into a world reflective of the fantasy he embraces in his writing, one where ghosts and spirits are real, where his muse torments him (and competes with a second, more conventional, male muse), and where Poe’s sporadic use of alcohol makes him unable to write . . . because it makes his muse sleep. Through the novel, Poe fights his inclination toward darkness because he does not think he will find acceptance if he follows that path.
The strength of this book lies in its enthusiasm for its subject matter. Winters clearly loves Poe, his life, and his poetry, and she immerses the reader in his style. This immersion happens most clearly in Lenore’s chapters, where Winters writes in mimicry of Poe: “I awaken in the shadows, ravenous for words, hungering for delicacies dripping with dread” (loc. 155). As Lenore strengthens, the style intensifies, demonstrating the increasing bond between artist and muse. Winters’s describes her research in an extensive Author’s Note, which is fascinating in its consideration of the connections between this novel and Poe’s life.
Though I found many elements of The Raven’s Tale appealing--including the grounding in historical detail and the incorporation of Poe’s early writing process--the novel didn’t completely work for me. The characters fell short: though I love fantasy (the more complex and strange the world, the better), I never felt as if I had my footing in this realm of embodied muses, and Poe himself felt more like a collection of character traits and information than a fully realized character.
The Raven’s Tale, which will be published on April 16, 2019, is a solid choice for those readers interested in learning more about Poe or beginning to imagine how he embraced the darkness that came to dominate his art. It did not, however, succeed in capturing my imagination or the spirit that makes Poe’s works so captivating for readers.
At the opening of the novel, Rhen, the daughter of an Upper society mother and a Lower father, is fighting with her Da to find a cure for a crippling illness that is afflicting residents, including her mother, of Lower villages. She yearns to be seen by those in power, the ones who could make a difference for those who are suffering. She dreams of breaking out of the cage of her gender, which seems to have sentenced her to—at best—a life as a politician’s wife without choices who must hide her intelligence and scientific aptitude. She pines for Lute, a fisherman who wants only to care for his family and to make a simple living.
With her cousin Seleni, a member of Upper society, Rhen does her best to work toward each of these goals while respecting the bounds of her world. There is, however, a catalyst that causes her to make a leap, disguise herself as a boy, and enter the Labyrinth. To Best the Boys reminded me, at different times, of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, but it establishes a new angle on that YA trend.
Weber’s world building here is just brilliant, juxtaposing the science that consumes Rhen with a fantasy world containing sirens, ghouls, and basilisks. I so appreciated Rhen’s coming of age as she struggles to define who she is in a society that gives women few choices. Weber balances Rhen’s personality with her cousin Seleni’s desires, and we see Seleni focusing on a quite different life for herself. The right to carve one’s path, regardless of what that path is, is a major theme in the novel.
The writing is strong, and I found myself marking quotations and beautiful phrasing throughout the book. The book’s strength doesn’t lie in surprises—I found this type of plot, including the quest within the labyrinth, Rhen’s self discovery, and the romantic relationships, to be fairly predictable. Instead, the quality of the details of world and of the character distinguish this book from others like it.
A strong standalone novel that is both rich and complete, Mary Weber’s To Best the Boys will satisfy readers seeking fantasy, action, and some excellent feminism. Great YA read!
The Gilded Wolves opens in a late 1800s Paris imbued with magic. An established crew of diverse characters successfully has completed a series of missions and is, at the novel’s beginning, in the midst of another. In this world, certain people are adept at Forging, a sort of magical engineering, and a circle of Houses control the world. Each House represents a different facet of magic connected to fragments of the Tower of Babel.
The novel moves between several perspectives. Séverin, the leader of the crew, has been cast out of the wealth and power associated with his line, the House of Vanth. He was raised in a series of foster homes, each dominated by a father who represented one of the seven deadly sins. With him through his childhood was Tristan, his foster brother, who relied on Séverin’s strength to help him survive each home. Next is Laila, a seductive, mysterious, and skilled woman from India who maintains an alternate identity as L’Egnime. Then comes Zofia, a brilliant Forger and victim of anti-Semitism whose objective approach to her world, including insight into numerical patterns, points toward some positioning on the autism spectrum. From the Philippines, Enrique, the final member of the group, can’t Forge but who makes up for his lack of ability with a dedication to history that informs many of their missions.
Each character has a distinct goal through the narrative, separate from the treasure they seek together, and each has a signature characteristic that acts as a sort of flag through the novel: Séverin, for example, chews cloves, Tristan has a gigantic tarantula that horrifies his friends, and so on. While these traits set the characters apart, they do at times seem to stand in for deeper development of individual characters. In general, The Gilded Wolves, in comparison with Chokshi’s other works, relied more on explicit explanation, on telling more than showing. This was, I think, in service of the plot, and Chokshi certainly devoted space to characters’ back stories, but I found myself wishing that the characterization were more nuanced.
As in all heist narratives, certain plot points require great suspension of disbelief: characters are able to foretell other characters’ actions with great accuracy or make speculative leaps just in time to allow their plan to continue. I am, as I said, all in for heists, so I happily suspended my disbelief and just went with it. The book’s fast-moving, compelling plot centers on a series of McGuffins that lay the groundwork for the next novel but are ultimately unimportant in comparison to the group dynamics at the book’s center.
The strength of the central crew and the solid heist plot make up for some shortcuts in other elements of the book. Overall, therefore, I’d recommend The Gilded Wolves, which has magic and Paris and humor and romance and vivid historical touches . . . plenty of good content for this compelling, fun YA read.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
We're pleased to share some of our book reviews with you all here. Note that the title of the post also indicates the author of the review. The books reviewed are linked for purchase.