Robyn Reviews: The Beautiful Ones

‘The Beautiful Ones’ is very much a novel of manners – one sprinkled with fantasy elements, but far heavier on the romance. Like all of Moreno-Garcia’s books it’s beautifully written, but there’s an element of detachment from the characters that prevents it being a fully immersive experience.

Antonina Beaulieu, known as Nina, has travelled to the city for the season – and the opportunity to join the city’s elite, The Beautiful Ones, thanks to her well-connected cousin and his scheming wife Valerie. However, her debut has not gone to plan. A country girl at heart, she lacks the decorum expected by high society – not to mention, she keeps losing control of her telepathy, a flaw which has earned her the nickname The Witch of Oldhouse. Enter the famed telekinetic entertainer Hector Auvray. Nina is dazzled by his skill, and Hector intrigued by her innate ability. However, its not only Nina’s telekinesis that draws him to her – and as Nina falls in deeper, Hector’s secrets threaten to tear them apart forever.

Nina is undoubtedly the highlight of the book. Forthright and naive, Nina is entirely out of place in a society run on unspoken rules and appearances, but she’s determined to have a good time anyway. A keen naturalist, Nina cares more about beetles than she does about securing an appropriate husband, and while she frustrates everyone around her she’s a delight to read about. While she might seem innocent and childlike, Nina is also an intelligent woman, and she picks up on more than those around her believe. Really, Nina is too good for any of the other characters, but in this sort of novel you always know how it’s going to end.

Hector Auvray initially comes across as very unlikeable, but as the story unfolds, he starts to evoke more sympathy. Hector is a performer, very different to the high class Beautiful Ones, and he’s worked hard to get to his station in society. However, he’s also become so adept at hiding behind a mask to fit in that he’s forgotten who he is without it. Hector makes a lot of mistakes, and Nina deserves better, but he isn’t a bad man.

Valerie, on the other hand, is on the dark side of morally grey. Consummately selfish, she’s been forced into a situation that she hates and regrets with every fibre of her being – and she reacts by tearing down everyone around her. Valerie’s situation, simultaneously the height of privilege and a tottering precipice, is a reminder of how difficult society used to be for women – even the wealthy ones.

The plot is predictable, following the well-trodden tracks of regency-type romances since the days of Austen. That doesn’t make the twists any less powerful when they inevitably come, Moreno-Garcia’s writing beautifully evoking tension and feeling. However, she also chooses to write her characters in a very Austen style, maintaining a degree of propriety and distance from them. This will likely appeal to stalwart fans of the regency romance genre, but personally I prefer to feel closer to characters, and this posed a barrier to becoming fully invested in the story.

The fantasy elements are well-woven, fitting the story without playing a large role in it. However, their absence wouldn’t greatly affect the plot or feel. This is definitely a romance novel that happens to feature fantasy rather than anything else.

Overall, ‘The Beautiful Ones’ is a well-written novel of manners that will appeal to fans of classic romance, Bridgerton, and fantasy-lite. For Moreno-Garcia’s fans, it’s very different to her previous work, but still a worthwhile read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Jo Fletcher Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 27th April 2021

I review another of Moreno-Garcia’s books, Mexican Gothic, here.

Robyn Reviews: This is How You Lose the Time War

‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a gorgeously written novella that crosses the boundaries between sci-fi, romance, and literary fiction. It’s the sort of story that’s impossible to capture in mere words – it’s an experience, and to reduce it to a simple summary or review would be to do it a disservice. I also suspect it’s a Marmite novella – some will adore it, and some will find it confusing and lacking any sort of substance.

Somewhen and somewhere – and by the same token, everywhen and everywhere – there are two rival time agents. Each seek out strands of time – sections of history – and subtly alter them to the needs of their side. They race to get there before agents of the enemies, to tip the balance of progress in their direction. Amidst this war, Red finds a letter. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence across time and space between two ultimate rivals – a correspondence which would see both branded traitors and could lead to one side ultimately winning, or losing, the time war.

The issue with that summary is that the novella is only tangentially about the war. The war is there, it’s happening, and it’s important in that it’s the entire reason for Red and Blue’s existence – but it’s merely the backdrop. The real story is about Red and Blue. Red, an agent of the Commandant, made for a purpose, perfected, sharpened; a woman who needs nothing, but finds herself craving it anyway. Blue, an agent of the Garden, a woman who thirsts and hungers and wants – a thrill-seeker of extreme talent who finds herself out of even her considerable depth. It’s also a story about words – the power of language, connection, expression; the power of emotion and its conveyance. The ideas and language are elaborate, but the underlying themes are simple. This is a love story, albeit one with teeth.

The novella alternates between Red and Blue, with the bulk of the story told in the form of letters. At-first, the non-letter content seems superfluous and unnecessary – as the novella develops, it becomes more substantial, but the letters are still the emotive heart. The narrative style of both the action and the letters is elaborate. El-Mohtar and Gladstone craft prose which resembles poetry – overly fanciful and descriptive, but at the same time gorgeous. They use many words to say what could be said in far fewer, but it’s so beautiful it adds an ethereal nature to what is already an otherwordly story – after all, it is a story about time-travel.

This is a sci-fi novella in that it deals with time travel, but very light sci-fi in that very few of the concepts are explained. The origins of the warring agencies remain a mystery, as does the nature of time travel. References are made to parallel strands of time – multiverse theory – and other futuristic concepts like neural implants and nanites, but this is at heart a literary novella not a scientific one. It can be confusing trying to navigate this unfamiliar universe without any explanations, but no knowledge of them is required to appreciate the beauty of the central tale. A little exposition would make life easier for the reader, but I can see why the authors chose not to.

Overall, ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a beautifully written, genre transcending novella that weaves a tale of obsession and forbidden love. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s an ambitious piece of fiction and a credit to its authors. Recommended to fans of gorgeous prose and stories that really make their readers feel.

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Paperback: July 18th 2019

Robyn Reviews: Mexican Gothic

“Open your eyes.”

Mexican Gothic is a beautifully crafted work of gothic horror. The writing is exquisite, the images created eerily beautiful, and reading it makes you feel uncomfortable yet unable to look away. It feels both original and a tribute to novels of the past – it could have come straight out of its 1950s setting. An absolute triumph of imagination and wordcraft.

The protagonist, Noemí , is a Mexican socialite, living a life of balls and luxury in Mexico City. Her father – the owner of a large dye company – would like her to marry, but Noemí  is too busy having fun to consider anything so serious. However, when her father receives a worrying letter from her newly-married cousin, Catalina, Noemí  finds herself sent to a crumbling mansion in rural Mexico where nothing is quite as it seems.

Noemí  makes an excellent protagonist – naturally inquisitive and with an impressive level of self-confidence and entitlement. She spends most of the book completely out of her depth but remains determined to find out what’s going on and ensure her cousin’s safety – an enviable level of loyalty. The supporting cast – Catalina, her husband Virgil, and her husband’s siblings Florence and Francis – are enigmatic and intriguing, but Noemí  remains the highlight.

It’s the imagery which makes this book. Moreno-Garcia weaves pictures which are simultaneously grotesque and stunning. She never quite confirms what is real, leaving it to the reader to make up their own mind. There’s a level of detachment from the characters, not allowing full understanding of what they’re thinking – but rather than making the characters seem underwritten, this maintains the air of mystery and illusion that makes the book so spectacular. It’s never clear what role any individual character plays or what their true motivations are, making it impossible to predict what’s going to happen next.

I loved the setting in rural 1950s Mexico. Mexico isn’t somewhere I’m familiar with, but it was interesting getting an insight into a place we rarely see portrayed in fiction. Noemí, used to a city with a stark class divide, is as new to rural Mexico as the reader, lending a fresh perspective.

The plot twists and turns. In many ways, Mexican Gothic is a classic haunted house story, but it avoids the pitfalls of predictability and horror for the sake of horror. Even at the end, some things are left unexplained – this is not the sort of book which needs to be tied up in a neat little bow.

If you like mystery, and horror, and books where nothing is as it seems, this is the perfect book for you – but maybe don’t read it after dark.

 

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 30th June 2020