Book Review

The Shadow in the Glass by J.J.A. Harwood

The Shadow in the Glass by J.J.A. Harwood is a dark, gothic retelling of Cinderella set in Victorian England. After Eleanor Hartley’s wealthy benefactor dies, Mr. Pembroke, her new guardian, relegates her to service as a maid in the same household where she was being trained to be a lady. Now she spends her days doing grueling, thankless work while also protecting herself and the younger maids from Mr. Pembroke’s drunken advances. The library is her only respite, where she finds comfort and hope locked inside books. One night while reading about Doctor Faustus, a mysterious figure appears to offer Eleanor seven wishes to change her life. The price? Only her soul. What could possibly go wrong?

Book cover for The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood.

It was not like losing a finger, or an eye, or a lock of hair—she knew what she would be without them. If she bartered her soul away, what would she become?

J.J.A. Harwood, The Shadow in the Glass

Despite the fact that Eleanor delights in the magic, mystery, and escape her favorite fantasy novels offer, her real life simply does not compare, so she’s understandably hesitant to believe her wishes might actually come true. She tests the waters by wishing for the fabled glass slippers first, and in doing so, discovers each wish has a price: life. Horrified by this revelation, Eleanor wants to back out of the bargain, but it’s too late. She decides not to make anymore wishes, but a number of unfortunate events force her hand. Instead of making extravagant wishes that might truly change Eleanor’s circumstances, her wishes end up being relatively small, focused only on individual aspects of immediate, arguably temporary problems.

One of my favorite parts of reading this novel is critiquing Eleanor’s wishes: Should we fault her for her surgical approach to wish-making? Would it have been better to make one giant wish that might truly help Eleanor to rise from her station? Maybe. But these questions reveal far more about the reader. Eleanor’s sold off her soul in pieces, and we’re compelled to wonder how she might have done it better. How deliciously horrifying to implicate us in her descent!

A truly good person is a rare and glittering thing—and you, dear girl, are by no means saintly.

J.J.A. Harwood, The Shadow in the Glass

Eleanor rationalizes her actions, even as they hurt innocent people, and she’s repeatedly stunned to learn people don’t actually like her much once they get to know her true nature. She claims all she wants to do is protect her friends, liberate her fiancé from those wishing to control him, and make her way in society as a respectable lady, but she never actually manages to do any of it successfully, in spite of all her wishes. She constantly insists she’s a good person who deserves good things, especially as her decisions become increasingly chaotic and morally ambiguous. In proper gothic fashion, other events that occur over the course of the story can explain the wishes granted, so at certain points, I wondered if there was even a fairy godmother at all. Perhaps the dark spirit that appears to Eleanor is actually a reflection of her own soul.

They say the best villains view themselves as the heroes of their own stories, and without even realizing it, Eleanor transforms into a villain. This forces us to reassess our read on her: Can we still root for her? Are we obligated to hope for her redemption now? Certainly, Mr. Pembroke is a vile character, and a couple young women in the novel are despicable enough to be wicked stepsisters, and the fairy godmother isn’t sweet and doting at all, but what does it mean when our hero can be lined up in their ranks? And what does it mean when we want her to triumph anyway?

It is not love you crave, nor wealth, nor all your pretty dresses. It is power.

J.J.A. Harwood, The Shadow in the Glass

A twisted fairy tale told in seven parts, The Shadow in the Glass is a fast-paced fantasy with familiar characters and themes cast in a dark new light. Enjoyable, surprising, and engaging, Harwood’s spin on Cinderella is sure to stay with you. Eat your hearts out, Brothers Grimm!

Thank you to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur uses magical realism to explore Korean mythology, cultural identity, mental health, and the enduring bonds of family. The novel opens with Elsa Park, a Korean-American experimental physicist conducting doctoral research on neutrinos (also known as ghost particles). She is confident in her studies, has no filter, and a prickly disposition, making her decidedly unlikable to those around her—yet an interesting character for readers to follow. Upon learning of her mother’s sudden passing, Elsa is forced to return home, where she begins a journey of self-discovery as she explores the Korean folktales her mother has left behind.

Book cover for Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur.

As if anybody wants to be told that their ability to endure is their greatest virtue. No wonder we get invasions and occupations, war and asshole husbands. What kind of stories, I wonder, do the white countries tell of themselves?

Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn

As far back as she can remember, Elsa’s mother has warned her that the women in their bloodline are doomed to live out the traumatic events outlined in a series of Korean folktales. Elsa constantly questions the abiding narratives that define cultural hegemony, so it’s in her nature to doubt her mother’s warnings; however, when she begins to see the supposedly imaginary friend she had as a child, Elsa interprets it as a portent of things to come and realizes there must be more to her mother’s stories. It’s either that, or she’s inherited her mother’s mental health issues, and the former is somehow easier to stomach than the latter, so she commits herself to researching the origins of her mother’s stories.

Folklorn is an especially nuanced examination of identity and race as they pertain to immigrants and diasporic communities. Elsa’s parents moved to America to make a better life for themselves, although they could not outrun the problems resulting from their own personal flaws. In addition to generational traumas, Elsa and her brother Chris struggle with the “model minority” myth, as well as “the freedom not to be grateful, indebted and beholden” like their immigrant parents. And Oskar, whom Elsa meets while learning about her mother’s folktales, is a Korean orphan adopted by Swedish parents and raised to ignore his race completely. Together, these seemingly disparate narratives provide a robust, decolonized illustration of the immigrant experience seldom seen in other novels.

We have full right to these stories of our ancestors, even more so because we are of the diaspora. These tales—like us—have traveled far across time and space, to be remade and understood in a new light.

Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn

The narrative structure in this book is difficult to follow as it jumps across time and space and struggles to straddle the line between academic book project and contemporary novel. The first of three parts, which consumes a little over 40% of the novel, was most challenging to read. Dense language and physics concepts attempt to teach readers about Elsa’s doctoral work while juxtaposing her passion for ghost particles with the Korean folktales that continue to haunt her. However, it’s simply too tedious for non-experts to digest while also attempting to establish other expository details at the beginning of the book. Elsa’s work is easiest to understand during a brief conversation she has with a cab driver, where she uses a metaphor about ice cream flavors to explain her research to an ordinary person. I would argue that’s all we need to know about it. Simply because Elsa is always thinking about her work does not mean we need to read about her thinking about her work, particularly because the more interesting aspects of Folklorn are about her family’s heritage and the mystery surrounding her mother’s stories.

Similarly, much of the dialogue about Korean myth, provenance, and book history in the third part of the novel is so heavily academic that it feels like a chore to read unless I’m getting a CV line for my efforts. I like a well-researched novel just as much as anyone else, but many parts of Folklorn read more like a scholarly publication (or conversations and correspondence about one). I repeatedly became impatient with the plot and pacing while Elsa and Oskar waxed poetic about their research.

Expats complain about leaving phantom lives behind, the other life unlived. Immigrants are too busy surviving to whine about forsaken selves. But now repatriated—I’m even more ghostly.

Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn

Execution of the magical realism in this novel is disorienting, but I’m beginning to think that’s by design. The Korean folktales are real insofar as they’re stories with histories that span across centuries, but Elsa’s spiraling mental state paired with ill-advised efforts to self-medicate left me confused as to how we ought to perceive her visions. Sometimes I’d be halfway into one of her hallucinations before I realized what was happening. In retrospect, I wonder if the point was to illustrate just how unsettling and frustrating the experience is for Elsa. It is this ambiguity that makes the novel’s conclusion strangely wistful yet satisfying.

As an Asian-American academic with immigrant parents in a diaspora community, I related strongly to much of the experiences Elsa describes, and I particularly enjoyed learning about her family in the portions of the novel that highlight her past and her time with her brother. I also appreciate that Folklorn tackles the ambitious task of unpacking the many aftereffects of colonialism that continue to impact Asian diaspora communities. However, I wish the novel focused less on Elsa’s academic personality so that this important story could be a little more accessible for readers.

Thank you to NetGalley and Erewhon Books for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling is a horror story built on a foundation of traditional gothic elements. The novel opens with Jane Shoringfield, a pragmatic and mathematically gifted woman who negotiates her own marriage of convenience to Dr. Augustine Lawrence to ensure her continued security and independence. The good doctor only has one request—that Jane spends her nights in a room above his surgery, and he in his labyrinthine home at Lindridge Hall. But that’s easier said than done, and Jane finds herself in Lindridge Hall on her wedding night, where she quickly discovers her new husband is hiding disturbing secrets about his past. That’s only the beginning of her troubles.

Book cover for The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

She wanted Augustine to be who she’d thought he was. That man would not have lied. That man would have confided in her.

Caitlin Starling, The Death of Jane Lawrence

A problem solver by nature, Jane is doggedly determined to save her husband from the vagaries of his eerie family home, even as they become more and more unexplainable. Regardless, she persists, and it is her resolve that makes her relatable if not likable. The most interesting part of Jane’s character arc is the way she questions her own monstrousness from the very beginning. At first, it’s because she fears she’s focused too heavily on logic over emotion, but as the story progresses, Jane succumbs many times to emotional whims, and interestingly enough, it is only then she becomes unrecognizable. Was she a monster before? Or is The Death of Jane Lawrence the origin story of the monster she becomes?

Starling’s use of magic as a metaphysical concept that challenges Jane’s logical and orderly view of the world is fascinating. As Jane methodically deconstructs and revises what she knows to be true, readers settle into an understanding of how magic is meant to function in Starling’s novel. Particularly creative is Starling’s use of the concept of zero as “everything and nothing,” which serves as the backbone for her depiction of magic. However, I wish Starling had done more to explain the greater role magic plays in her fictional world and why physicians, in particular, practice it. Perhaps it’s meant to parallel the arguably god-like role they take in attempting to cure or reverse injuries and illnesses. Even so, considering Jane manages to learn magic, surely physicians aren’t the only ones who practice. How common is magic in this world? It’s difficult to tell, given Jane’s humble upbringing.

Zero…an empty nothingness, but a nothingness that went on forever, for nothing could have no bounds. The infinite and zero were one. Except that the infinite was the greatest thing in the world, and zero was nothing at all. They were opposite. They were the same.

Caitlin Starling, the Death of Jane Lawrence

Starling’s prose is melodramatic and overwrought, which at first does wonders to establish the picturesque scenery of a gloomy little town in an alternate version of post-war England. However, this strength becomes a weakness during the second half of the novel, where it often feels as though readers could skip pages at a time without losing a sense of the overall plot. The extremely redundant nature of the seven-day spell Jane casts at one point was particularly tedious to read. In general, the prose is beautiful, the details unsettling and gruesome and delightfully spooky, but they’re truly unnecessary after a certain point. Kill your darlings, as they say.

The final “revelation,” which occurs in one particular chapter near the end of the novel, closes the loop with regards to several plot points that seem misleading or arbitrary until readers are plunged into that chapter. It is deeply satisfying…until the novel just keeps going! The Death of Jane Lawrence would’ve been so much spookier if everything had ended right after the revelation. I almost thought that’s where it all ended until I turned the page! Nevertheless, the actual ending is unsettling in its own right. In proper gothic fashion, readers reach the conclusion and wonder how much of it was real and whether the supernatural elements can or should be rationalized. That’s one of my favorite elements in gothic literature, and Starling executes it so well.

A magician gets what she asks for, whether she meant to ask for it or not.

Caitlin Starling, The Death of Jane Lawrence

The Death of Jane Lawrence is a creative take on gothic literature and boasts some of the creepiest scares I’ve seen recently in a novel, especially towards the beginning, when suspense is at an all-time high. I couldn’t walk past reflective surfaces at night for nearly a week without fretting a little! However, the dense prose and excessive, rambling explanations to validate the pseudo-science behind the magic only disorients the reader and makes the second half of the story drag. Despite my misgivings, it is worth checking out if you enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, yet another novel that puts a modern spin on the horror-gothic mash-up with a deliciously slow and suspenseful exploration of the uncanny, or other familiar gothic stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edith Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.