Jean, 39, lover of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, reader of comic books, conqueror of genre fiction.
Just a side note first: Yes, THAT Stacey Jay. I hadn't actually remembered the Kickstarter controversy until I was nearing the end of the novel, so whatever I thought of that, it didn't color my perception of the book.
The first half of this novel is divine. I read it directly after Rosamund Hodge's Crimson Bound, which was sadly a disappointment to me, so this originally got a boost from that, thinking, 'Yeah, this is how you do a fairy tale retelling!' Jay goes hard on the science fiction, which was a refreshing change from fantasy, and opens the book with a chunk of exposition about colonists from a dying Earth landing on a sentient planet, and causing that planet to split personalities, because of their conflicting attitudes, and cleverly disguises it as the telling of a story. This is the book's Once Upon a Time.
Isra and Gem make interesting and enjoyable protagonists, and they have some sparkling chemistry. I also liked the reversal of roles here, with the princess keeping the beast captive in her "palace" (here, a domed city) and, since the story also takes quite a bit from Rapunzel, later having the princess as the blind one being led through the desert by her "prince."
There's a nice build-up here, between the characters, with the story. Gem has learned that the roses are the key to the domed cities' prosperity, but doesn't understand that it's Isra's blood sacrifice that is the only thing that will feed them. We're given paltry reason why she doesn't just tell him, but whatever. I forgive a lot, when everything else is working.
But then the book stops working. Things start going far too fast. The slow burn leading to the discovery about the old queens through Isra's dreams turns into a big info dump wherein Isra's led to a diary that tells her everything. And MISOGYNY! Oh, the misogyny. You want to hear about some crappy world building? Have a society where there is a matrilineal monarchy, where the queen's willing blood sacrifice keeps the entire city running, and then tell me the girls have no say in anything, from government to who they marry, just 'cause! 'Cause misogyny! Apparently, Jay is completely unaware of the fact that a man who marries a queen does not become king, or even the problems that would arise from someone who wasn't raised and trained to rule from the day they were born suddenly having control over everything, 'cause, ya know, misogyny! Isra's hands are tied, she becomes a whinging victim, because misogyny! It makes no sense whatsoever.
And then there's the completely unnecessary and grim death of Gem's infant son, the timing impeccable for Gem to show up just as the baby's mother is giving him the poison. With food! They could have all been saved! This we see, but not his many wanderings in the next few months; we're told about it, briefly, about how he almost went mad, and that's why he didn't return to Isra. But it's so fast and sloppily done, like everything in the last half of this book.
Meanwhile, the domed city is suddenly hugely falling apart! And Bo, Isra's "smooth skin" fiance is suddenly truly deeply in love with her, after smacking her around at the implication that she was in love with Gem, and that she was disrespecting him. I think we're supposed to find his hot and cold attitude "complicated"; to me, it was just fucking nasty, and the fact that we got more and more chapters from his point of view killed any interest I might have had in the character at the beginning as someone I thought the author was actually going to allow to just be unsympathetic.
And then the planet goes and heals all of the disabled folk. And not just the ones with horrible, life-threatening impairments, but Isra's mute lady-in-waiting Needle gets her speech "restored" in a moment that could only be designed for people who cry over and share those videos titled 'deaf woman hears for first time and cries!' So, I guess no disabilities exist in this perfect world, and, hey! They planet solves racism as well by making both the smooth skins and the desert people the same, in-between race! Yay?
Hugely inconsistent world building ('cause MISOGYNY! How would we know Isra was the heroine if she wasn't being held back and talked down to by men?!) rushed story telling and a questionable end message about race and disability made me grateful enough for the previously disappointing Crimson Bound, which went up a star in my estimation, as this settled around three (it was four-to-five during the first half.)