Thank you to NetGalley and William Morrow for the ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Don’t get me wrong, I like puzzles. Some of my favorite books are ones that feel like unraveling a knot or solving a Rubix cube. But this book felt like a puzzle where you put the pieces together, in the order they should go, and everything fits nicely except the picture it creates is utterly, infuriatingly incomprehensible.
I adored Bridget Collins’ novel The Binding, and this novel did not lack its predecessors deep emotion and breathtaking prose. What it did lack is a comprehensible plot, a remotely likable main protagonist, and a central concept that was explained in any detail whatsoever. It follows several different protagonists, the foremost of which is former government official Léo who has returned to the school (college? undergraduate institution? seminary?) of his youth to hide out from those who wish him ill and study the deeply opaque and frequently referenced grand jeu
I know this concept is supposed to vague. Is, perhaps, the point of the book itself. But reading this novel and having this insubstantial concept be the central driving force behind everything without even a WHISPER of explanation felt like beating my head against a wall. Is it song? Is it scripture? Is it writing, is it art? Yes, says the novel, in response. Yes it is. But it does not deign to explain further than that.
Furthermore, Léo himself was just terminally unlikeable. He spends most of his school years being arrogant and terrible to an isolated youth, and most of his adult life being arrogant, moping around, and thinking about how women are inferior. I was blown away by the difference in my feelings around this book versus The Binding, which was easily one of my favorite books of last year. If not for Collins’ gorgeously atmospheric prose and singular voice I would not think it was the same author.
The prose truly is the saving grace of this book for me and the reason it sits at 2 stars instead of 1. Collins verse is STUNNING. I draw your attention to this line in particular—
“Wide darkness, darks of sky and trees, white-in-dark of snow and slope. And against it all two patches of gold, mid-air, flickering as the flakes thicken. Uncanny. Nothing here is the same as in my dream and yet it is, whatever story my brain was telling me, it’s this.”
Absolutely vivid and stunning. This is what sustained me through most of the novel, no matter how frustrated I became. While I have a lot of issues with the story itself, I cannot deny that Collins is a fabulous wordsmith, and while this novel was a disappointment I will likely still pick up anything she writes in the future.