Fairy Tales, Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Magic Realism, Young Adult

Dark and Deepest Red

Cover image for Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-16274-8

 “Well-crafted seams and delicate beading gave my family a trade and a living. But red shoes gave us a name. They made us infamous. Until they came for us.”

Strasbourg, 1518: A plague of uncontrollable dancing sweeps through the independent city of Strasbourg, rousing suspicions of witchcraft and demonic activity. Lala and her aunt Dorenia have been living in the city since Romani were driven out of neighbouring countries by order of law. The laws eventually came to Strasbourg as well, but the two women have lived quietly, hiding their true ethnicity behind rumours of illegitimate descent from an Italian lord. But when rumours of witchcraft begin to swirl in earnest, the unspoken suspicions of their neighbours loom large. In the present day, Emil and Rosella live in Briar Meadows, a town that is entirely normal fifty one weeks out of the year. But every autumn, the glimmer arrives and settles over the reservoir, precipitating unexpected events that fade as quickly as the autumn leaves. This year, it is the legendary red shoes made by Rosella’s family that seem to have become truly magical, but Rosella worries that the taint of witchcraft will haunt her family long after the glimmer fades. Meanwhile, Emil tries to understand the connection between the glimmer and a family legend about long ago ancestors who were tried for witchcraft after a dancing plague swept through the region.

In their fifth book, Anna-Marie McLemore turns their talent for magical realism to the realm of fairy tales, and history, combining Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” with the documented la fièvre de la danse that ensnared the city of Strasbourg in 1518. In their Author’s Note, written from the city of Strasbourg in 2018, McLemore notes that there is no known connection between the two, but they “still wonder if perhaps Hans Christian Andersen had, at the back of his mind, a little piece of history that mentions red shoes, and an Alsatian city gripped by dancing as though it was a plague.” In Dark and Deepest Red, McLemore makes the suspected connection explicit, casting Emil as a descendant of the women who were accused of causing the plague.

Dark and Deepest Red is structured around three alternating narrators, beginning with Rosella, whose family, the Olivas, are known for their exquisite handmade shoes. Next is Lala, who goes by Lavinia outside her family, because it is essential that they hide their Romani heritage. Finally, we have Emil, a modern day Romani boy who has supressed his heritage in order to fit in. Briar Meadows has a touch of magic, true, but it is not otherwise so accepting of things that are out of the ordinary. Emil’s parents are scholars, and their family history is well-researched and documented, but Emil doesn’t really want to know the stories his parents have so painstakingly saved for him. The chapters alternate in quick succession, and indeed this might be the book’s greatest weakness; while it keeps all of the plots moving, it also means that the reader never has time to really settle in and connect with one character.

Dark and Deepest Red orbits around two central romances. Lala has long been in love with Alifair the orphaned trans boy who appeared mysteriously appeared out of the Black Woods one day when they were both still children. He has since become her aunt’s apprentice in their dyeing and ink-making business, his uncanny talent for slipping among wasps unstung further adding to his mystery. But Lala constantly worries that if she and her aunt are exposed as Romani, Alifair will be tainted by association. Emil and Rosella were friends when they were children, finding a unique bond in the fact that they didn’t quite fit in among the other children of Briar Meadows. But they slowly grew apart, until the dancing shoes bring them back together unexpectedly. Rosella tries to hide her affliction, desperate for the glimmer to pass, while Emil’s denial of his heritage means that unbeknownst to them both, he may hold the key to the answers Rosella seeks. Only together can they solve the problem. The two relationships mirror one another, showing how secrets complicate our every attempt to connect.

While this book has much of the magic of McLemore’s previous reads, and deals with many of the same issues, the structure makes it difficult to sink into and revel in that magic in quite the same way as The Weight of Feathers or Wild Beauty.

You might also like When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Magic Realism, Young Adult

Wild Beauty

Cover image for Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore by Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-12455-5

For a hundred years, La Pradera has bloomed under the hands of the Nomeolvides women, five in every generation, whose magic brings to life what was once a barren landscape unfit for farming. But the Nomeolvides women are cursed; any man that they love too much, who stays too long, will disappear into La Pradera, never to be seen again. They have lived with this pain for generations, defined and shaped by it. So when Estrella and her four cousins make an offering to the land, and a boy appears, a boy who seems to be out of his time, a whisper of hope goes through the family. Fel has no memory of how he came to La Pradera, but what if he was the disappeared lover of a long ago Nomeolvide woman? But even as the women begin to hope that their lost loves may not be lost forever, the arrival of a new member of the family that owns the land they are bound to threatens everything they have built.

La Pradera is a vivid setting, a place of magic and tragedy. The Nomeolvides women have worked the land there for a hundred years, but beautiful as they have made it, they can never leave it, or La Pradera will take its revenge. But though they are bound to this land, they do not own it. It belongs to the Briar family, a wealthy clan that hides their rejects and failures on this distant estate. When Marjorie Briar dies, Reid Briar waltzes into town, fully expecting to seize control of the estate from Bay, the illegitimate daughter of a Briar, who was raised by Marjorie, and named her heir. The power imbalance between the Briars and the people who have worked their land forms an important part of the story.

Despite the curse, romance is woven through Wild Beauty. All five of the Nomeolvides girls are a little bit in love with dashing Bay Briar, nominal heir to La Pradera. They do not know if a woman can be disappeared by their love, but they are all afraid to find out, and so they keep their affection for her at a distance. When Fel appears, he and Estrella are repeatedly drawn to one another despite her mother’s warnings. Though the land gave him back, they all worry that he could disappear again. And what if he really was once the lover of a dead woman he can’t remember? In the course of the story, both Bay and Fel must emerge as their own people before questions about who can love them will be answered.

In addition to being a romance, Wild Beauty has a strong theme of family, especially the relationship between Estrella and her cousins. The older generations of women are more distant and less well known. Estrella and her cousins are pushing themselves away from their mothers and grandmothers, as much as they can when they are all bound to the same land, unable to leave it for very long. They hope to somehow avoid the fate of their ancestors, as every new generation hopes, and that drives a wedge between them and their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. The older women try to keep the peace and protect their daughters, but Estrella seems determined to stand up to Reid, whatever the cost.

In this, her third novel, Anna-Marie McLemore returns with her lush, polished prose and fine touch for magic realism. Although slower paced, her novels always deliver for atmosphere, character, and emotional impact, and Wild Beauty is no different.

Also by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Weight of Feathers

When the Moon Was Ours 

Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Magic Realism, Young Adult

When the Moon Was Ours

Cover image for When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-05866-9

“She had seen him naked. Almost naked. And she understood that with his clothes off, he was the same as he was with them on. ”

When the people of the town tore down the old water tower, out came Miel, soaking wet but otherwise unharmed, aside from her deathly fear of pumpkins. This unusual appearance is the least of her oddities; roses grow unbidden from her wrist, and the hem of her skirt is constantly wet, even in the heat of summer. Always half-regarded as a witch, her only friend is Sam, a boy with secrets of his own. He paints and hangs beautiful moons from the trees, and he is maybe the only boy in town who has never fallen in love with one of the Bonner sisters, four more suspected witches because of their great beauty and even greater heartlessness. But when the Bonner sisters seem to be losing their power, they decide that Miel’s roses hold the key to restoring it. And if she doesn’t give them up, neither her secrets, nor Sam’s, will be safe.

As the story opens, Sam and Miel’s long friendship—dating from the time that Sam was the first person to approach her after she emerged from the water tower—has just begun to transform into something more. Young adult narratives commonly build up the romance slowly, making readers wait for so much as a kiss, but Anna-Marie McLemore boldly depicts Sam and Miel in bed together in chapter two. In interviews, McLemore has said that she had to rewrite the book “four times just from the ground up”, chasing her own fear of honestly portraying “safe consensual queer sex” in a young adult book. But the result is a very tender scene that becomes a necessary foundation for the further development of Sam and Miel’s relationship in the rest of the book.

Carved pumpkin adapted from the cover of When the Moon Was Ours
When the Moon Was Ours themed book-o-lantern. Happy Halloween!

Sam is a trans boy who has latched onto the concept of bacha posch, a practice in some parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where families who have no sons dress their daughters as boys so that they can fulfill the role temporarily. As adults, they are expected to return to living as women, and marry. Sam, or Samir, learned about the practiced from his Pakistani grandmother, and seizes on it as a means to live the life he wants, while also hoping that when adulthood arrives, he will somehow be able to become the woman that society expects. Sam’s mother, and Miel’s guardian, Aracely, have hidden Sam’s secret from everyone else for years, but now the Bonner sisters are threatening to expose him in a town not known for its tolerance.

The villains of McLemore’s story are the four Bonner sisters, Chloe, Lian, Ivy, and Peyton. Their power was broken when Chloe left town to hide a secret, and even though she has returned, nothing is the same as it was before. Ivy takes up the mantle of power among the sisters, desperate to restore them to their former glory, claiming any boy they choose, and breaking his heart when they’re done. Their role as antagonists is founded on this villainized sexuality, then built upon by their sense of entitlement, and willingness to exploit other people’s secrets even as they guard their own.

When the Moon Was Ours also draws on the legend of La Llorona, a ghostly woman who haunts the river, crying for her drowned children. The ghost of a similar tragedy hangs over Miel’s past, and her unwillingness to speak about her life before she came out of the water tower, even with Sam, who has trusted her with his deepest secrets.  She is in the habit of consigning the roses that grow from her arm to the river where she hears her mother crying, until the Bonner sisters become determined to seize these “wasted” blooms for their own purposes. This myth adds one more layer to a love story suffused with magic realism, and haunted by tragedy.


Cover image for The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemoreYou might also like The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

Find more of my book-o-lanterns from previous years

Fiction, Magic Realism, Romance, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

The Weight of Feathers

Cover image for The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-05865-2

“On ne marie pas les poules avec les renards. One does not wed hens with foxes.”

The Corbeaus and the Palomas have been rivals for more than twenty years. As travelling performers, every year they cross paths at the Almendro blackberry festival, and their simmering hatred threatens to destroy both shows.  Sixteen-year-old Lace Paloma has just become a mermaid in her family’s river performance, and she knows only what they have told her about the Corbeaus. She has never seen them perform, and tries to steer clear their magia negra. So when she tells off her cousins for beating a young man she assumes to be an Almendro local, none of them realizes that this is the reclusive Cluck Corbeau, who builds the wings in which the Corbeaus perform as they dance through the treetops. And when Cluck carries her to the hospital after a disaster strikes Almendro, he doesn’t realize he has touched la magie noire of the Palomas. But when Lace’s family learns the truth, they cast her out, and Lace seeks out Cluck, determined to free herself of his curse.

The Weight of Feathers is a largely realistic YA romance with just a subtle touch of magic. The Corbeaus—who are descended from French Romani tightrope walkers—hide the feathers that grow beneath their hair, and the Palomas conceal the shimmering scales that fleck their backs inside their mermaid costumes. They each believe that the other possesses dark magic, but can never quite prove that their rivals are responsible for their ill luck. The accident that strikes Almendro, although not well explained at first, is industrial in nature. Superstition and bad blood have caused deaths before, and may yet take another life as the rivalry between the two families rekindles.

At the beginning of the book, the rivalry between the Palomas and the Corbeaus is so pronounced that their accounts of the feud sound like entirely different events, rather than two sides of the same story. Each believes the other possesses black magic, and that a Paloma must never touch a Corbeau without shedding blood. But when Lace and Cluck come together, the accounts begin to overlap and make a kind of sense, as the troubled history of the rival families is revealed. Almendro—a fictional town in California’s Central Valley—is a realistic backdrop that has its own history and problems, facing the difficulties of industrialization and poverty, and the harsh reality of the state’s long drought.

Lace and Cluck’s forbidden romance has definite shades of Romeo and Juliet, although the two warring families are ruled by iron-fisted women: Lace’s Abuela, and Cluck’s mother, Nicole Corbeau. Their rivalry is tinged with disparagement of one another’s heritage, and Cluck also seems to be an odd man out in his own family, bullied by his older brother, unchecked by their mother. Both families have some unhealthy beliefs, and Lace and Cluck are both of an age where they are beginning to ask questions and push back. However, they also have important relationships within their families. Cluck is close to his grandfather, Alain Corbeau, who once worked at the plant in Almendro. Lace’s father is a fierce ally who married into the family, and is willing to challenge the restrictions it places on her. Her Tía Lora is another outsider who married a Paloma. Family in all its complexity is on display here as the teens try to define their identities both within and apart from their circle of relations.

The tension in this story builds slowly, and so many answers are not immediately forthcoming. But McLemore’s atmospheric prose and my own curiosity kept me going. The subtle magical elements also serve as contrasting imagery, further setting the two families apart. Each chapter is headed by a French proverb or a Spanish dicho, which ground Lace and Cluck in their cultural backgrounds. Speaking French or Spanish among themselves is just one of the ways that the families deliberately differentiate themselves from one another, and also keep themselves apart from those who do not share their way of life. Inevitably, I was sucked into the forbidden romance and magic realism, and found myself enjoying the story despite the slow start.


Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker You might also like The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker