This was a NetGalley read, which is probably the only reason I persevered and got to the end. I’m actually glad that I did, because it improved, but the early chapters almost put me off reading the rest of the book, and the fact that other users on Goodreads had given it 1 star was a bit offputting too. In the end, the book wasn’t exactly bad. It was mostly just weird. Weird enough to make reviewing it far from easy.
This book is weird because it’s very hard to explain what it’s about. It’s hard enough to pin down its genre. There are ghosts, but I wouldn’t really call it fantasy. In some ways it’s alternate history. It’s got a strange, subterranean world hollowed out by miners and within it, a new hierarchy and new set of rules.
It’s also weird because of the way it’s told — much of it from the perspective of Loxley, who doesn’t exactly experience the world the way most people do. I read her as potentially autistic for much of the book, but then a character used an insult that’s usually used to refer to people with Down’s Syndrome, so I’m not sure which it was. From what I know, it seemed more likely that she was autistic, but without that having been explicitly stated, I could be wrong. (Insults are rarely medically accurate, though, and regional use may also vary.) Either way, she has an unconventional perspective and sometimes struggles to process sensory information, making her narrative a little hard to follow because White doesn’t shy away from fully immersing the reader in Loxley’s mind, however confusing it might be.
For a long while, I wasn’t sure if this book had a plot. But it does. It’s actually quite a good one, in places, though a little bit mismatched. There are various subplots that I would have liked to see more of — Loxley as a violinist, for example, though I’m biased when it comes to musician characters. And there was never really an explanation for the supernatural aspect to the book which, while not 100% necessary, is usually something I appreciate.
The worldbuilding on the whole felt somewhat incomplete, which contributed to my uncertainty with the first half of the book — I was disoriented, and couldn’t find quite enough plot threads to cling onto while I found my feet. However, I got there in the end, and things come together quite effectively. It might possibly have been better if they’d got there faster, as I considered putting the book down earlier on, but in the end I was glad I didn’t.
The writing didn’t blow my mind (though I have high standards so that isn’t unexpected), but it’s effective. There was a clear difference between Loxley’s perspective and others’, and though her “condition” was never named or properly identified, the narration was emotive enough to make it clear how it affected her and her perception. It was interesting to have a neurodivergent protagonist whose story is not about their condition (I use that word because the characters did and because I don’t know exactly what Loxley had): she’s going about her protagonist business, but with the added layer of being terrified by certain sensations and situations, and not really understanding how to interact with people around her. It was also intriguing how that crossed over with the supernatural element of things, though it was unclear whether that was genuinely real or if it was in Loxley’s head. It seemed to be the former, but no one else saw it, so it’s hard to be certain.
I didn’t exactly enjoy the book, because I spent quite a lot of it feeling like I was outside the story and couldn’t get fully immersed until I understood more about the world and what was going on. However, it definitely grew on me, and I was glad I decided against marking it as a DNF.
As I said before, the plot did come together for an effective ending, and I haven’t even mentioned that it has a significant f/f relationship that doesn’t end in tragedy — remarkable, really, that that hasn’t come up in the review more. I guess my anti-sex filter was set a bit too high, because I didn’t get overly invested in it: it was largely physical, which doesn’t interest me, though there was an emotional component too that I could appreciate.
Anyway, I should probably offer some trigger warnings for the book. There’s some attempted rape, some brutal murder, and some reasonably explicit sex, any or all of which may put off some readers. There is also a fair bit of bad language including ableist insults directed at Loxley (not unexpected, given the alt-history setting), so if words like ‘retard’ and ‘mongoloid’ make you uncomfortable, it might be better to give this one a miss.
So while I won’t be pressing this on everyone I meet, it ended up surpassing the expectations created by the first couple of chapters, and I’d probably rate it 2.5 or 3 stars.