Top critical review
There was a boy...a strange and monstrous, brooding boy...
Reviewed in the United States on June 1, 2020
I am angry with this book. And not the good kind of angry, like when I become deeply invested in a character and they die spectacularly, or when a riveting book ends on a cliffhanger and it takes years for the sequel to be released. Both of those involve me loving a book.
I DNF this book (50%). This is the first time I have ever written a review of a book that I DNF, because it ordinarily feels like I have not given the book every opportunity to sway me if I don't read the whole thing. I'm making an exception here, in part because I feel like I invested so many hours into the story that it should have ended. But also because I came to the creeping realization that nothing much was happening to advance the plot. At least, nothing that made any sense to me. In part, it may have been because I was listening to the Audible version rather than reading it. Not because of the narrators, who were great--I am very appreciative of their talents with multiple accents. The problem with listening to it, at least for me, was that I heard a lot of words that I could not make sense of (terms of endearment, maybe? curse words, maybe? monsters, maybe?). I did not know what they meant, and I don't feel like they were ever defined--or if they were, it must have been once, in passing, and possibly in the first book.
I also got very tired of the excerpts from the Book of the Saints etc that preceded every chapter. This is a great literary device when it's done well. Here, it was often not clear to me whether/how any given excerpt related to the chapter that followed it, beyond providing a broad picture of this world's myth and magic and religion (and if that was its only function, it was serious overkill). To me, they only interrupted a narrative that was already having a hard time keeping itself together. This is one of several holdovers from Wicked Saints, where it annoyed me. But in WS, I tolerated it because of my overall interest in the story. In THIS book, it compounded my suffering. I'll return to the main source of that suffering in a moment.
The narrative felt like a strange combination of characters skulking about in dark places (sometimes in the environment, sometimes in the mind); cryptic conversations with witches, monsters, and/or gods who may or may not be monsters; blood and bone and blood and bone; weird, gross eye stuff; being made and unmade and made and unmade; plus excessive hand wringing and teen angst.
I get it, it's a YA novel. Hand wringing and teen angst are to be expected, and I consider myself pretty tolerant of it. There was enough in WS to annoy me, but at least in the first book, the angst does not set in until after some amount of story takes place. In RG, it's there from page 1, with Nadya as the angst-ridden hand wringer-in-chief.
Which brings me to the reason why I abandoned this book. Nadya is one of the least likeable protagonists I have encountered in quite some time. Usually, the heroines of YA novels demonstrate some small element of strength, self-worth, or redeeming value, even if their judgment is often compromised by matters of the heart or the hormones. There is a glimpse of strength in WS Nadya. But RG Nadya is all about the "boy." As other reviewers have noted, she has a small, rotating list of adjectives that she likes to append to the word "boy." Her chapters are 99% musings about the "boy," and 1% complaints about the gods abandoning her because of said "boy." Even the Audible narrator for Nadya’s chapters sounded pained and reluctant every time she had to utter that word. I started to twitch every time I heard it. Maybe this somehow gets better in the latter half of the book. Maybe the “boy” becomes a “man.” Maybe the author enlists the aid of a thesaurus. Maybe Nadya thinks about something or someone else. But I found that I absolutely could not hear that word one more time.
On top of all that, the relationship between Nadya and her "boy" is, as other reviewers have noted, toxic. But even that, in and of itself, has the potential to make a sad sort of sense. In WS, their relationship evolves in a more or less believable fashion until the climax. And then, it breaks. Ordinarily, the [SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN'T READ WICKED SAINTS--BUT I'M KIND OF ASSUMING THAT YOU HAVE] epic betrayal that we witness at the end of WS would be a solid reason for these two characters NOT getting back together. But in RG, Nadya can't seem to stay away from the tortured monster boy who causes her life-threatening physical harm. They exchange betrayals, exchange injuries, exchange blood, exchange magic, kiss, then beat each other up some more. Granted, that's only what I took from the first half of the book. But I'm not getting the sense from the other reviews I've read that Nadya suddenly starts making good life choices. Readers, don't be like Nadya.
So, why 2 stars instead of 1? The second star is me giving the part of the book I did not read the benefit of the doubt. If there had been more of Serefin and less of Nadya (or maybe, all Serefin and no Nadya), I might have kept reading.