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Cat Winters's THE RAVEN'S TALE - Jen's Review

Thanks to #partner @netgalley for an egalley of The Raven’s Tale in exchange for an honest review.

Cat Winters’s The Raven’s Tale is a sort of origin story focusing on a seventeen-year-old Edgar Allan Poe struggling to find self-acceptance. Poe has an early conflict in nearly every facet of his life. His adoptive father, John, expects young Edgar to give up his art for a “more serious” career in something like business, holding hostage funding for Poe’s education in exchange for his compliance. ​ Edgar also fights against his own poverty-stricken beginnings, in the disparity between the luxurious lives of his current peers and his childhood with impoverished actors. His society as a whole is set against him. His church criticizes his parents’ lifestyle and is literally built on the ashes of their theater. His friends and romantic interests can not definitively move past his low parentage. And there is, again, Pa, who does not hesitate to remind him of every area in which he falls short.

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 was 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.

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