Monday, August 31, 2020

Despite Vivid Backdrop, Magical YA Debut Turns Into a Long Slog to a Disappointing Finale

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Abandoned as a baby in the deep forest that surrounds it, the only home Kallia has ever known is the isolated Hellfire House.  Under the tutelage of a master magician and now his son, she has become a powerful show magician, the masked star of the House's nightly show.  Despite the celebrity that comes from providing jaw-dropping performances for awestruck audiences, Kallia longs for more.  She dreams of breaking free of her gilded cage, traveling beyond the impenetrable woods that keep her trapped, and harnessing all of the magic she feels burning through her veins.  Jack, the master of the House, refuses to even entertain the idea of Kallia leaving.  But, when she learns of a magic competition in the mysterious ice-laden city of Glorian, she ignores his warnings and flees in the night.

Female show magicians are looked down upon, but Kallia soon becomes a crowd favorite.  Although the other contestants and most of the judges are clearly rooting against her, Daron Demarco can't look away from the competition's stunning star.  He's in town for his own secret reasons and can't afford to be distracted.  Nevertheless, he can't stand idly by while Kallia—obviously the most talented magician in the contest—is shunned.  As the competition heats up, though, magicians start disappearing, Glorian's only exit mysteriously vanishes, and Kallia is acting strangely.  Is she systematically eliminating her competitors?  Or is someone cheating in order to cripple her chances of winning?  It's up to Demarco to figure out what is going on before the competition becomes not just dangerous, but also deadly ...

It's tough to ignore a book billed as Phantom of the Opera meets Moulin Rouge and Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles is certainly earning a lot of attention.  The YA debut deserves it for its vivid imagery, which does give the story a sumptuous "glamdark" backdrop.  Beyond that, though, there's nothing super original about the novel, the first in a planned duology.  Kallia's world is a confusing one that doesn't get much clearer as the story moves along.  Our heroine is a kick-butt MC, whose confidence and determination make her admirable, even while her vanity and coldness diminish her likability.  Her comrades, including Demarco, aren't fleshed-out well enough to make them stand out.  Even the colorful members of the Conquering Circus, by far the most interesting characters in the novel, don't get enough page time to show off their uniqueness.  Likewise, Glorian—whose mysterious secrets were the only thing that really kept me reading this book—is relegated to a side act while the lukewarm romance between Kallia and Demarco steals the spotlight.  Added to these irritants is the fact that Where Dreams Descends drags on for 464 pages, a good 200 of which could have been cut.  Although there is a fair amount of action in the novel, there was no point at which I couldn't have put it down for good.  I stuck with it, though, expecting a dazzling finale that would provide enough answers to bring a satisfactory end to the story's first volume while leaving me eager to read the second.  Didn't happen.  The cliffhanger ending just felt disappointing, trailing more questions than answers in its wake.  After wading through 464 pages, it didn't feel like much of a reward.  Needless to say, I won't be bothering with the sequel.  I just don't care that much.  Despite its intriguing premise, in the end Where Dreams Descend felt like a long, dissatisfying slog for me.  Bummer.  I really wanted to like it more.

(Readalikes:  I rarely read YA fantasy, so nothing's coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Where Dreams Descend from the generous folks at St. Martin's Press and Wednesday Books.  Thank you!

6 comments:

  1. Magic just doesn't do it for me, so I am going to give this one a miss.

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  2. Oh, no! It's never good when a book turns out to be a disappointing slog.

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  3. Anything fantasy is usually a tough sell for me anyway, but it looks like this one doesn't really add anything to the genre. What a shame.

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  4. Too bad this wasn't what you were hoping for. I hope you next read is amazing.

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  5. I fell out of love with YA a few years back after devouring a ton of it. I found it too much of a slog to get through the guff to find the gems! Sorry this one didn't work out the way you hoped.

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  6. I find that the only books I can really concentrate on since the pandemic started are YA fantasy books. I've managed to add a few other things in but by and large, that's what I've been reading. I saw a favorable review of this title and requested it from the library. I started struggling almost right away. I've put it aside for the moment (another book that I already had to return before finishing became available again and I really want to finish it this time). I'll give it a few more chapters and see what happens. Right now it feels too romance-y with their bodies pressed together and pulses pounding and smoldering glances, etc, and that's really not my thing. I'm glad I'm not the only one feeling ambivalent about it!

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