YA Review: As I Descended by Robin Talley

Note: After another semi-hiatus while revamping the website, enjoy this review of Robin Talley’s As I Descended, a delightfully dark (and queer) retelling of Macbeth.

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Title: As I Descended

Author: Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Power couple Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten will let nothing stand between them and winning the prestigious Cawdor Kingsley Prize: especially not school sweetheart Delilah Dufrey. When the two tap into paranormal powers to secure the scholarship, darkness threatens to consume their boarding school (and themselves).

What I loved: You know those books that you’re already certain you’ll love before you pick it up? As soon as I heard that As I Descended was a contemporary Macbeth retelling, I was hooked. Openly queer characters only sealed the deal.

This book exceeded expectations for everything I thought it would be, and I had high expectations already. Its tone was delightfully spooky and reminiscent of a Southern Gothic, and the characters mirrored their Shakespearean counterparts while still retaining individuality. Powerful emotions like envy, desire, and unbearable guilt push every character into a morally grey area as they deal with supernatural forces far beyond their understanding.

Quote: “Between the atheism and the lesbian thing, Lily was a terrible Catholic. Even before she’d added murder to her list of sins.”

Recommended: Yes! Especially recommended for those who love Shakespeare retellings or fiction featuring very open and human LGBTQ characters. Or anyone who loves a good ghost story. Between the three categories, I think most people fall into at least one.

Next: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

Trans Representation in YA: When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Note: After some thought, I have decided to post YA reviews on Tuesdays and Fridays. The idea behind this is two-fold. First, I feel that although I hope to review any contemporary YA book that holds a strong sense of meaning, it will be a good way to raise more visibility for LGBTQ YA in particular. When I was a teenager, I wish we had as much access to queer YA novels as queer teens do now. With all these amazing books out there, I feel a need to spotlight them in case there’s a LGBTQ teen out there who needs it.

Second, it will also help me keep up with my reading goal this year (as I am currently a little behind). I hope you find these reviews helpful and give you a good idea of what to check out next from your local bookstore or library. Let me know in the comments if you have any book suggestions!

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Title: When the Moon Was Ours

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: In a tale of magical realism that stings of emotions strongly felt in our world, close friends Miel and Sam are as equally unique as they are mysterious: roses grow and blossom from Miel’s wrists, and Sam hangs moons that he painted in the trees. When the Bonner girls, four sisters rumored to be witches, want Miel’s roses for themselves, Sam and Miel must face hard questions about love, identity, and the secrets we keep.

Review: Initially, I was drawn to this book because I read that one of the protagonists (Sam) was a transgender man. Although luckily, queer representation in YA fantasy is on the rise, I had yet to read a fantasy novel with a trans character (let alone a trans protagonist).

Yet the most beautiful thing about this book is that being transgender is just one aspect of Sam: it is a vitally important aspect of him, and throughout the novel he explores how to reconcile his gender identity, but he is also an artist painting moons to make the forest brighter, a son seeking love and acceptance from his mother, and a kind-but-conflicted boyfriend to Miel.

Too often in queer YA, it feels like the protagonist’s story is reduced to coming out as gay or trans–and while those stories are important to tell, people are so much more than their gender identity or sexual orientation. Sam and Miel, as well as the other characters, felt human. Overall, this book was very character-driven. As a reader, I felt so strongly pulled into the characters’ world that the emotions they felt, I felt alongside them.

Overall, this novel is about self-exploration and reconciling who you wish you were with who you are. It doesn’t present any easy answers, nor was it meant to, as we don’t often get those in life. The way this book handles social issues such as queer identity and racism is subtly well-done, with respect for these issues in reality evident in the way the author handles them.

What I loved: When the Moon was Ours is a work of magical realism, just as whimsical and beautifully-written as books in this genre tend to be. Blurring the edges between fantasy and reality allows McLemore to present powerful thoughts. The prose was as magical as the plot itself and gave a sense of allure and true magic.

Much of the story is told through metaphor and allusion: for those who prefer plot over character development, this may be a little frustrating, but for me it painted a vivid and compelling picture.

In addition to queer representation, the author also brought in themes of cultural identity and racism. Sam grapples with his identity as an Italian-Pakistani trans boy, realizing that his identity as male is so much more than the cultural role of bacha posh he had initially assumed. Miel investigates her identity through her Latina heritage through legends, language, and Spanish tradition.

In the author’s note, McLemore talks about her husband’s transition and how they as a couple came to know so much about one another as they grappled with difficult things. She wrote about seeing her husband’s struggle in his eyes as a teenager and how, though transitioning has been difficult as any challenge is, she has seen him become free.

I try to be a pretty strong person, but admittedly, I got a little teary-eyed as I read it. Someday, I hope to find someone as caring and understanding as the author is with her husband.

Quote: “He would never let go of Samira, the girl his mother imagined when he was born. She would follow him, a blur he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye when he stood at the counter, making roti with his mother. Or he would see the silhouette of Samira crossing the woods, wearing the skirts that fit her but he could never make himself fit. Maybe one day he would see her shape, her dark hands setting the lantern of a hollow pumpkin into the water, candle lighting the carves shapes.

“But this was what she would be now, his shadow, an echo of what he once was and thought he would be again. She was less like someone he was supposed to become, and more like a sister who lived in places he could not map, a sister who kept a light but constant grip on both his hand and his grandmother’s.

“No one could make him be Samira. Not him. Not the Bonner sisters. Not the signatures on that paper.”

Recommended: Highly. While this book is of course excellent for trans or queer-identifying readers, the way it handles identity is pertinent for anyone who’s trying to discover themselves in a conflicting world.

With prose so beautiful and characters so nuanced as these, I have to recommend this for all lovers of magical realism and an emotionally-charged story. I may, however, recommend this more for older teens because it does have some sex scenes (although with minimal detail and tastefully-handled).