Transporting Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a 1920s setting and retrofitting the story into one of an established blood family versus a found one is not an easy feat – and its one Samantha Cohoe attempts with limited success in Bright Ruined Things. The tension in the mystery plot is palpable and the hero is interesting, but the novel’s Tempest-inspired plot is weakly connected, the time period ill-defined, and the relationships between the characters often feel grossly abusive, leaving the book in the ‘just okay’ category.
Magic and spirits seem to be as natural to the island where Mae grew up as rain. A ward of the powerful Prosper family, protected and sheltered by them since the death of her loyal father, she knows nothing but the way and place she was raised. And the way she was raised was adjacent to capricious, powerful people but never wholly one of them. She wants desperately to stay on the island, to learn the Prosper’s magic, but when she passes her eighteenth birthday she will be exiled.
The Prospers are powerful conjurers who control the island and its magic. Lord Prosper has created a fuel source called ather from the island’s resources (how he does this is very much a big mystery), which has made him very rich and very powerful, and Mae knows that that this power will no longer protect her now her school days are at an end.
Mae still has close connections to the family. Lord Prosper’s granddaughter Coco is her best friend, and Mae has a crush on Coco’s cousin, the disaffected Miles. Mae is offered the chance to marry into the family – through an adopted son, the ungovernable Ivo – whom she’s fairly sure is a murderer, and definitely comes to realize is reckless with his magical abilities.
Mae knows she cannot marry Ivo in spite of the protests of Coco as to her brother’s goodness. Determined to capture Miles and become a magical Prosper once and for all, Mae puts all of her faith in First Night, a magical celebration where the Prosper family gathers on the island to celebrate Lord Propser’s harnessing of the island’s power. But the land is withering and dying – the spirits are sickening, and frustrating Prosper’s ability to harness their magic for further use. As Mae digs into the mystery to save the island, will she uncover the true secret behind the Prosper’s magical abilities and change life on the island forever? Will she become a Prosper? Or will blood magic – and other attendant nastiness associated with the Prospers – rule the day?
Bright Ruined Things is a complicated mystery with genuine suspense and a foregone conclusion – odd bedfellows if there ever were ones. Adding on a troubling subplot about the source of the Prosper’s magic and you have one difficult YA novel..
Mae is one of those heroines who is forever tailing behind an all-powerful magical person – Coco, or Miles, or Ivo – and becoming the victim of their machinations. She’s frustratingly inert, and aside from confusedly thrashing around, doesn’t do much to save herself until the final third of the novel thanks to a deus ex machina magical object. Her curiosity drives everything, and yet she is just a catalyst, something of a cipher, standing in for the spirits who use her as a conduit.
Miles and Ivo are generally pretty terrible to Mae, so I couldn’t force myself to buy either romantic option as a genuine one, and her friendship with Coco reads as fully manipulative. Coco is eventually and awkwardly outed as a lesbian in the middle of Mae’s machinations, and that plot leads nowhere. .
The setting feels very vague. While authors like Chloe Gong effortlessly manage to reflect life in the 1920s in China while adding new layers and fresh world-building concepts, the island and its inhabitants in Bright Ruined Things feel less like neighbors of Gatsby than people adrift in time. The total absence of period slang is unforgivable, and none of the fashion mentioned or technology used seems to fit the era.
What did work for me was Ivo, who has been used by his family, and is sad and believably tormented as a result, and the genuine suspense that slowly ratchets up until we learn about the spirits and their point of origin. I only wish the entirety of Bright Ruined Things had been interesting as these small glittering fragments of the plot. As is, it’s sadly a dull slog.
Note: This book features gruesome depictions of blood magic and violence.
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Recent Comments …
On my TBR!
I so agree!
I have asked for that for Christmas!
If you’re a fan of Singh’s writing, you’ll love it!
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I’m going to check out The Wolf Den and am happy my library has it. The time period sounds intriguing.…