*I received a free ARC of this novel, with thanks to the author, Harper Collins UK and NetGalley. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: Arden Beacon arrives in the salt-swept port of Vigil with a job to do. Tasked with using the magic in her blood to keep the lighthouse burning, she needs to prove herself worthy of her family name and her ancestors’ profession.
But the coastline Arden must keep alight – battered by a sea teeming with colossal, ancient beasts – is far from the cultured, urban world she knows. It is a place of secrets, rumours and tight-lipped expectations of a woman’s place. More than anyone, the town folk whisper about Arden’s neighbour, Jonah Riven, the hunter of leviathans. They say he murdered his wife. They say he is as much a monster as his prey.
Amidst all her determination and homesickness Arden cannot get this shadowy stranger out of her head. A plot swirls around the lighthouse keeper, the hunter and the authorities. Arden must make sense of these dark waters – before they wash her away.
A sensational debut novel perfect for fans of Outlander and The Binding. This is gothic, epic, romantic fantasy at it’s very best; a tale of magic, intrigue on dangerous waters and a love story for the ages.
I wanted to love this book, so much. I adored Deeplight (Frances Hardinge) and looking at the cover and blurb – pirates! sea monsters! – I had high hopes for a similarly immersive tale. Unfortunately, I found it virtually impossible to fall in love with Monstrous Heart… I don’t feel we got past the first date.
The main issue was with the lack of coherent worldbuilding. There are references to old technology, but also more recent inventions; real-life historical references crop up, in a world that also has kraken-skin clothing and a place named Fiction. There is a ‘Guild’ and a Eugenics Society, and an enforcement arm called ‘The Lions’, but I wasn’t clear on the powers, function or purpose of any of them, and they often seemed to overlap in ways I didn’t understand.
The magic system is equally difficult to grasp. It clearly all revolves around blood, blood testing and blood letting, but it is never explained what powers are possible or how they work. There are main powers – which can be weak – and secondary, or ‘Shadow’ talents, which can be stronger, and the Eugenics Society breeds, sterilises and even kills people based on their power classifications… in some unexplained system. Arden has weak talent for some form of incendiary magic (judging by the Latin) and therefore is a stain on her family status, but still has power and status by dint of her blood, yet people treat her contemptuously for that same magical blood. So are magic users powerful and revered, or exiled from polite society? I’m still not sure.
Arden is the main character, and her motivations at many points are unfathomable to me. She is grieving for her parting from the man she planned to run away with, and desperate to ascend in her career in order to return to him, so much so that she will allow herself to be blackmailed into morally dubious actions to achieve her goal. Until she meets Riven – a man who she is told is a violent, abusive monster – and decides to like him, apparently out of sheer contrariness. Then, when he turns out to be more bark than bite, she immediately falls panting into his arms. Meanwhile his sole motivation for anything is apparently his pure love for his dead, abused wife, but he quickly reciprocates Arden’s fickle ardour. It doesn’t give me much hope for the longevity of their relationship!
I did fully enjoy the side-character of Chalice. I found her well-developed and interesting, and honestly would rather have followed her story for a large portion of the book. Unlike the other women we meet, Chalice has sexual and career agency, and tons of personality. Most of the other female characters seem to be there to be raped or married, depending on their status. Yes, trigger warning here, there is quite a lot of rape, sexual assault, slut shaming and general misogyny throughout the world of the story. It seems to be just part of how things are there… like the Eugenics Society, which is exactly what it sounds like and remains pretty much uncommented on.
The real shame here is that the plot and world ideas really are good, and Chalice proves that the characters can be too. Likewise, the writing is skilful, if a little dense and flowery. It takes some time for the action to get going, and for the reader to pick up the basics of what is going on, but once the plot was properly established and underway I began to get into things.
Then, towards the end of the book, just as things began to become really interesting and action-packed in Arden’s adventure I realised I was running out of pages. Sure enough, the book ends on a cliffhanger, with none of the main plot points resolved, to tease the reader into following Arden into a (previously unmentioned) sequel. I think I’ll sit that one out on land.
“I am Arden Beacon. Lightmistress, Associate Guildswoman and Ignis Sanguine from Clay Portside, the trader’s city of Lyonne.” Arden recited, still unfamiliar with her official titles. She held out her gloved hand. “I have come from Clay Portside in Lyonne to take over the lighthouse operation from my late uncle, Jorgen Beacon.”
“A sanguinem?” The woman frowned at the offered hand.
“It’s all right,” Arden said. “Touch doesn’t hurt me.”
Still cautious, the woman shook Arden’s hand timidly, her eyes still on the pony-plantskin gloves, so fine compared to the ubiquitous bonefish leather of the coast. Was not the gloves she minded, but what lay under the gloves that gave the woman pause.
– Claire McKenna, Monstrous Heart
Monstrous Heart is available on Amazon right now!