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REVIEW:  Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke

REVIEW: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by...

Dear Ms. Tucholke,

I’m a sucker for evocative titles. And if Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is one thing, it’s evocative. It’s the type of title that overrides any misgivings I may have about mysterious bad boys who come into our heroine’s life. We all know that story, don’t we? But your debut puts a small town, gothic sensibility on a familiar premise and I was hooked.

devil-tucholkeViolet White comes from old money. Her family is rich — or used to be, anyway. Their glory days are certainly behind them. Their family estate in the seaside town of Echo is falling apart. Since their parents are conveniently, and irresponsibly, absent, Violet is looking for ways to earn money. One way involves renting out the guesthouse behind their estate. She has no idea if anyone will take up the offer, but then River West shows up on her doorstep.

A bit of an odd duck, Violet has never before shown interest in boys. River changes that. She’s tempted by him in a way she’s never been and falls in love for the very first time. Except River’s mysterious past comes back to bite them with terrible consequences. And Violet will have to face an awful possibility: River just might be the epitome of evil.

I love the idea of gothic horror, but I often struggle with it. I didn’t encounter that struggle here. I fell into this novel and didn’t want to come up for air. From the family estate in its fading decadence to the White family’s numerous buried secrets, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea was filled with creeping dread. For me, that is the epitome of horror. It’s not gore or violence. It’s the dread, the anticipation of the axe falling.

I liked Violet a lot. She was such an eccentric girl and I can only imagine how she was viewed by her high school classmates. But I adored how much she loved her grandmother, and how Freddie’s voice constantly came through in the narrative, even though she was already dead.

It made up for the fact that Violet’s parents suffer from the ever-common Absent Parent trope. Maybe it’s because I’m a child of immigrants but I can’t understand how parents could just up and randomly go to Europe on some kind of artist vacation with no firm ending, leaving their twin children behind to fend for themselves. Is this a rich person thing? Is this what it’s like to be so rich that mundane things like paying for food and electricity don’t even occur to you? Someone needs to explain this to me.

While I usually roll my eyes at the mysterious bad boy trope, it worked for me here. Violet inadvertently isolates herself. Unlike her twin, Luke, she doesn’t play any sports. She’s not part of any clubs. She wears her grandmother’s old-fashioned clothes. She thinks other people treat her differently because she comes from the White family and acts like it, which only perpetuates the cycle. So when River shows up on her doorstep, asking to rent the guesthouse and acting like she’s not strange or aloof at all, I can see why she’d find that attractive.

But River has a supernatural ability that has terrible connotations within the context of a relationship. Are Violet’s feelings for River genuine? I think so. Have they been manipulated? I believe so as well. And that’s what makes me pause. Because the romance takes on non-consensual aspects, and that’s uncomfortable to say the least.

In its defense, the narrative does not shy away from this. It treats the manipulation as the awful thing it is. Violet is furious when she finds out. I actually thought her struggle between knowing that manipulation was awful and succumbing because being with River felt so good was authentic for a teenager on the verge of adulthood. I think most people can empathize with this conflict. At some point in our lives, we’ve encountered a situation where we know doing something is wrong or is bad for us (or both) but we do it anyway and screw the consequences.

But because of all this, I couldn’t support the relationship between Violet and River. I don’t trust River not to influence Violet to get his way. It goes beyond my apathy towards bad boys. Psychically manipulating someone to make them stop fighting with you, even to the point of altering their memories, is awful. That’s not a healthy basis for a relationship. I know there’s a sequel forthcoming and I can say that River will have to work hard to make me believe a relationship between him and Violet would not be toxic.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is the first YA gothic I’ve truly enjoyed. I think it’s because the novel partly reminds me of old school Stephen King, and I love old school Stephen King. I’m still reserving judgment on the Violet and River romance. I think it’s toxic, but River has shown that he’s trying to change — even if he keeps failing in spectacular ways. I guess the sequel will tell us whether he wins the battle against himself. And even though there is a sequel, this novel ends in a good place. There’s no cliffhanger and in fact, I think readers can consider it one of those satisfying open-ended conclusions. B

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey

REVIEW: Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey

Dear Ms. Carey,

I’m a huge fan of yours. I loved the original Kushiel trilogy and while I thought the succeeding trilogies didn’t quite live up to that beginning, the Phedre novels still rank high among my favorite fantasy novels. Your non-Kushiel novels didn’t hit me the same way but I still appreciated what you were doing with those narratives. You always try to do something different and subversive and I like that. So when I heard you were turning your attention to urban fantasy, I was intrigued. I’ve made no secret of the fact that the subgenre has lost its charm for me, but some things will bring me back. My favorite author writing in it is one of them.

darkcurrentsDaisy Johanssen is a walking cautionary tale against using Ouija boards. Most stories talk about accidental possessions or summoning ghosts who refuse to leave. When Daisy’s mother used an Ouija board, the other girls at the slumber party woke up in the middle of the night to find her having not-entirely consensual sex with an incubus. Yikes. Daisy was the result of that.

In most places, this would be an issue. However, Daisy and her mother hail from Pemkowet, a midwestern town known for one thing: its supernatural population. Many decades ago, the Norse goddess Hel made her home there and as a result, an underground supernatural community — known as the eldritch community — sprung up around her. As an adult, Daisy serves as Hel’s enforcer and the liaison between the Pemkowet police department and the eldritch community.

Because of its supernatural population, Pemkowet has become a tourist town. People come from all over in the hopes that they’ll spy a cute fairy or maybe even a vampire. Of course, the reality is not quite as pretty. When a frat boy drowns in the lake, everyone initially assumes it was accidental. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. And now Daisy must find out what exactly happened in order to keep Pemkowet’s tourist trade — and the eldritch community at the heart of it — safe.

This is a pretty big departure from the Kushiel books. It’s lighter in tone, so readers shouldn’t go in expecting the darkness that characterized your traditional fantasy novels. On the other hand, I personally am tired of the faux-gritty darkness that’s pervaded the urban fantasy genre lately so I found the lighter tone refreshing. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not comedic or humorous. It just wasn’t unrelentingly dark or “edgy” and wasn’t trying to be.

I found Daisy to be a very relatable heroine. I liked how she took everything in stride. Yes, she’s half-demon and her father wants to use her as a vehicle to cause the apocalypse, but she has no intention of letting that bring her down. I loved that she has a great relationship with her mother and a female friend! A close female friend who she’s known since forever even. Considering one of my major complaints with the urban fantasy genre is that its heroines often don’t have or keep female friends, this was excellent.

And Daisy values her best friend a greal deal. She tries to patch things up after an argument over a potential love interest. When her friend’s little brother is endangered, she drops everything to help find him — even though it may jeopardize other aspects of and relationships in her life. Daisy prioritizes this friendship and I liked that its weight reflected the length of time they’d known each other.

One of the things I liked about the Kushiel books was how female positive they ultimately were, and I’m glad to see that carry over here. Daisy, her mother, and her best friend were great. The complicated layers to their relationships struck me as very real. I adored Lurine, Daisy’s former babysitter turned B-movie actress, who also happens to be a very powerful member of the eldritch community. I loved her. If you wrote hundreds of pages about the adventures of Daisy and Lurine, I would be on-board that train so fast, I’m not even going to lie.

Dark Currents isn’t what I’d consider a mindblowingly original novel. The subgenre is well-established by this point and its tropes are well defined. We have a heroine with a supernatural heritage caught between two worlds in an investigative role. There are a few supernatural men in her life that she may or may not be interested in and want to pursue. Someone has died, and this jeopardizes the relationship between supernaturals and normal humans. We’ve seen these plot points before.

But there are touches and quirks that keep thing interesting. The light tone, as I mentioned before. The small town setting and the fact that everyone — and I do mean everyone — knows your business. One of Daisy’s love interests is someone she’s known since elementary school! (This is really a suburban fantasy, all things considered.) The fact that Daisy and her close circle of family and friends are actually lower working class, and it’s not the result of them having to wander like vagabonds. Daisy’s mother lives in a trailer park and works as a seamstress. Daisy’s best friend works as a cleaning lady. You don’t really see these sorts of jobs in UF novels. Even the push and pull between townies and tourists was pretty accurate.

All that said, we do catch glimpses of darkness here and there. Daisy can bring about the apocalypse if she chooses to embrace her demonic heritage, after all. And there were the circumstances surrounding the frat boy’s death. That was pretty twisted. So even though I would call this a lighter UF, readers shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking it’s all sunshine and rainbows. It’s definitely not. At the very least, the conflict between Pemkowet’s eldritch population and the religious groups who want them razed to the ground should provide some fodder for thought.

Dark Currents is a quirky novel, but I think it’s a solid entry into the subgenre. The murder mystery plot is well-constructed and well-paced. It is very much a first novel in a series, given that it sets up various characters and relationships, but it did the job well. I’m interested in seeing where Daisy goes from here and looking forward to the next one. (And more Lurine wouldn’t hurt too.) B

My regards,
Jia

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