Book review: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

Title: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

Publication date: 14 January 2020

Genre: Historical | Contemporary | Magical realism | Young adult

Page extent: 309 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.

Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.

With McLemore’s signature lush prose, Dark and Deepest Red pairs the forbidding magic of a fairy tale with a modern story of passion and betrayal.

I’m a reader whose favourite books tend to be massively detailed fantasy tomes, with lots of rich worldbuilding. I’ve always found this results in me not clicking with magical realism/fabulism/contemporary fantasy quite as much, because there is often some aspects of ambiguity or suspension of disbelief required for the world to make sense. So whenever I read a novel of this type, I find I either really love it or just feel a bit meh. And unfortunately this was the later for me, which I am devastated about because I was so excited to read my first Anna-Marie McLemore book. But saying that, I was every bit in love with McLemore’s writing as I expected to be, and I fully plan to continue my dive into their work!

Dark and Deepest Red is a dual timeline story: 1518, where a dancing plague rolls through the town of Strasbourg, and modern day, where a pair of red shoes force a girl to dance. Inspired by the real historical accounts of a dancing plague as well as Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Red Shoes. I’m not familiar with that fairytale so I came to this book very new to the story. This is also my very first Anna Marie McLemore book, and I was hugely excited because so many people in the book community absolutely rave over their books.

I’d like to start with the really positive which is that I 100% want to read more of McLemore’s work. I found the language and writing absolutely beautiful, and that really lived up to what I’ve heard from others about their work. The language was what drew me through the story and made me want to keep reading. As expected also, let’s shout out to the awesome rep in this story: there is a lead trans man and he is absolutely my favourite character! I adored Alifair. He’s actually the only character who doesn’t get his own POV, and I wonder if I therefore liked him so much because he felt so mysterious compared to the others.

Unfortunately, I think it was the story itself that I didn’t click with. The ambiguity and lack of explanation got to me and I think I would prefer the story a bit more resolved. I also felt the structure of three different POVs, each section only a few pages long, made it difficult to ever root for a character or get a chance to understand them a bit more. A story like this, which is so heavily dependant on its characters to make up for the ambiguity in its world/magic, really needs strong characters and I just didn’t get a chance to feel close to the characters because we were whisked away from constantly.

So whilst I wasn’t in love with this particular story and world, I really was awed by Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing and I will definitely be picking up one of their earlier books which might work better for me.

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