Books, Uncategorized

Review: Monstrous Heart by Claire McKenna

Thank you to NetGalley and Harper Voyager for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

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When Arden Beacon is sent to the lighthouse, she is simply a woman with a job to do. She neither seeks, nor expects, distraction. After years tainted by disappointment, Arden is finally taking up her family’s profession. She must prove herself worthy of her name, for she has nothing else.

But the coast she has been tasked with lighting is far from the world she knows – the salt-swept, backwater town of Vigil is battered by a sea teeming with colossal, ancient beasts. It is a place of secrets, rumours and tight-lipped expectations of a woman’s place.

More than anyone, the folk of Vigil whisper about Arden’s new neighbour, Jonah Riven, hunter of leviathans. He murdered his wife, they whisper – a perfect, golden girl, full of charm and potential. So very different to Arden Beacon.

They say he is as much a monster as his prey, but Arden cannot get this dark stranger out of her head.

~

As per usual, a few content warnings to start: Attempted rape, sexual assault, discussion of rape, manipulative/abusive characters, some ableist language.

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Mild Spoilers Ahead

This book was…something. From the premise, it sounded intriguing and exciting. It was likened to The Binding and described as a gothic love story, all of which I loved the sound of. However, I felt this story fell flat.

I’ll start off with the positives: there are gay side characters and disabled rep through a character with Cerebral Palsy. Chalice was a fantastic character who was funny, genuinely caring, and brought some light into this story.

As much as I enjoy stories that jump into the action, there is no world building or context during the opening few chapters, which is jarring and makes it difficult to engage with this book. There are no real explanations of the magic and abilities within the world either, making it seem like a lot of it was made up on the spot to suit the plot. There seems to be completely random types of power/magic which are mentioned, but never explained or explored. They are largely described in Latin, so if you don’t understand the language, you probably won’t get an explanation for what that power does. It is frustrating and seems like a pointless way to make them sound elite and powerful. The magic is seemingly rare, but characters with two separate abilities are apparently prevalent enough for three of them to be in one small town? Riiight…

I had a hard time immersing myself in the world due to several confusions in the plot. The use of mythical creatures alongside extinct (in our world) creatures made it feel like the world-building was thrown together without any form of explanation for how these creatures exist. Time and time again, things from this reality are mentioned which ripped me out of the story – either set it in our world, or don’t. Using place names like Manhattan as well as Fiction (Fiction…as a place name. Can we just appreciate how lazy that is?), and referencing ‘the Owl and the Pussycat’ didn’t work for me at all. The technological advances were very confusing and made it difficult to really imagine Fiction as a place; Mr Justinian owns a car, but there is talk of electricity like it’s new and modern, whilst Mr. Riven has a type of sonar device on his boat?! There is mention of religion, god and an ‘old religion’, but again, this is never truly expanded upon or explained enough to make much sense. I think the author would have benefitted hugely from planning out the world before trying to write this story, as it would have made it more cohesive and easier to understand as a whole.

Another issue I found was the constant repetition of Mr Riven being a violent character. Purely from the blurb, you know there is more to him than meets the eye, so the continuous reminder took me out of the story and annoyed me quite a lot. It also feels like when he is revealed to be innocent, the shock is completely taken away through the over-emphasis. It feels totally unsurprising. He is then described as gentle which had the exact same effect. Show me through description and action, don’t tell me 1,000 times!

This world is very misogynistic, so I was hoping for a powerful character arc for Arden, but no real change happened. A majority of the men are incredibly dismissive and hold her qualification over her, despite her standing in society being incredibly high. It seems like a world which is unnecessarily negative for women, where they are demeaned regularly. The only positions you hear of women having are working in a brothel, a stall owner and a wife. Even Arden is not immune to this, and the idea of her marital status is discussed so frequently that it is practically a secondary character. This misogyny is also paired fantastically with a hefty dose of classism. Arden is supposedly higher class because of her powers, but is still treated like dirt by several characters who receive zero punishment by the end of the book. The people of Fiction are spoken about awfully a large amount of the time by Mr Justinian (are you getting the sense that he’s not a nice guy? Good.), but they are shown to be a kind, if not superstitious, group on the whole. The Eugenics Society (yep, you read that correctly.), which seems to run the world they live in, is constantly spoken about, and their ‘Lions’ seem to be ever-present and always watching. During the book, they are spoken about with fear, but very rarely actually demonstrate their power. When they do, it seems incredibly lacklustre and like every typical Big Bad. The Society itself has major issues, starting with the entire idea of a Eugenics Society. It is exactly what is says on the tin and I find this an incredibly disturbing prospect, even within fiction. This needed to be shown as an incredibly awful prospect that was refuted by characters, not just spoken about in a nonchalant manner of ‘it is how it is’.

From early on in the book, you see there is a distinct rape culture present in this society. When Arden arrives on Fiction, she is told by members of the town about the vicious Mr Riven and his wife who was raped and killed by him. The townspeople seem to relish at the idea of another woman being close to him once they realise that Arden will be living in the lighthouse near his land. It is incredibly disturbing to read and I felt very uncomfortable. Mr Justinian is another suspect character who acts as if he owns Arden. He is manipulative and possessive, using his sway as Coastmaster to get his way.  Arden’s attempted rape and sexual assault still does not allow for her to get any distance from him, but instead she has to stay in contact. There is no closure for her and no punishment for Mr Justinian during this story and it felt disgusting and wrong to have to read a story with this unsatisfying conclusion during the current climate of the #MeToo movement. If I didn’t have to read this book for the review, I would have DNFed due to this. It is disheartening that the author didn’t use this as an opportunity to utilise the Lions as a way to punish him for harming someone as powerful as Arden, or let her get her own revenge on him in some way.

I’m aware that this is an ARC, but the amount of errors that should have been spotted made it very difficult to engage with the story properly. Arden is referred to as Andrew so much in the first few chapters, that I originally thought it was a new character being introduced!

I’m bored of the ‘Mysterious, brooding man with a dark past can only be helped by a young, innocent girl who has no idea what’s going on’ trope. It’s overused and makes it seem like the only purpose for a woman in a story is to be a stepping stone for a man’s redemption arc, even when he isn’t the protagonist. Arden is treated like a pawn in this book, both by other characters and by the author.

The chemistry between Arden and Mr Riven is unconvincing, so the entire plot twist in the second half of the book had little impact, and the danger did not build up enough to warrant me caring about the outcome. The romance felt forced to try and give an extra edge to the twist, but it didn’t work at all. The sex scenes felt like they were thrown in for some attempt at rescuing the relationship and proving that it’s real, but instead makes Arden’s actions questionable as we are frequently told of Mr Riven’s love for his wife. However, Mr Riven also declares that he has feelings for Arden and wants to run away with her. It seems like a big mess of half-baked feelings that no one is convinced by. I wish that authors didn’t feel the need to force a relationship into a fantasy story. They work without the romance! Frankly, the chemistry between Arden and Chalice should have been explored more if a relationship had to be present because I had fun reading their scenes together! I felt that the entire later third of the book was rushed and didn’t have any sort of convincing ending.  I didn’t feel like any plot points were wrapped up, so the ending was lacklustre and weak. I assume it is being left open for a sequel, but I just don’t care enough about any of the characters to want to read it.

It is concerning and disturbing that, even in a fantastical setting, the author cannot even entertain the idea that a woman is more than an object or a piece in a game for men to use and abuse as they like, regardless of class or ability. This story could have been an empowering and interesting piece of fiction, but instead dredges up the worst of our current society, mixed with mythical creatures to add some interest. The ending of this book is a weak attempt to give power back to Arden, but still doesn’t have the impact it should have.

Overall, I gave this book 1 star. The initial idea is fantastic and should have worked, if the world was thoroughly built. As it wasn’t, the story was patchy and not enjoyable, not to mention the rampant rape culture.

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