A sweeping, atmospheric debut, Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles is perfect for fans of Caraval.
The novel opens in a club called the Hellfire House, which sits at the edge of the city of Glorian, a place shrouded in mystery. The club is run by the master, a mysterious young magician named Jack. Every night, a showgirl by the name of Kallia performs, captivating the club with both her dancing and her stunning magical feats.
Predictably, Kallia wants more than a life of being stuck in one place, performing the same routine night after night. She wants to see the world (*cue “Belle Reprise”*). Jack refuses to let her go, however, insisting that the world outside isn’t kind to female magicians. Kallia thinks he’s wrong, and she also learns that he’s been lying to her about several things, so she escapes to Glorian to compete in an epic magician’s competition. Despite female magicians not being allowed to compete, she wows the judges enough to earn a spot.
Daron Demarco, former famous magician, is one of those judges, and he has his own agenda. He came to Glorian, not to be a judge, but to find his sister. Intrigued by Kallia, however, he finds himself becoming more and more drawn into the outcome of the competition.
Strangely, magicians begin disappearing before each stage of the competition, leaving no trace of what happened to them. Kallia is convinced Jack is behind it somehow, but she doesn’t know what to do. All she knows is that he wants her back, and she believes he will do anything to make that happen. Still, she is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery so she can take her place in the world of show magicians that she knows she belongs.
What really worked for this book was the lush, colorful worldbuilding. Despite being marketed as Phantom of the Opera meets Moulin Rouge, I saw no Phantom influence, besides everything being red and black and spooky (apparently that passes for a retelling these days), and instead, this novel really reminded me of Caraval. That book stood out to me because there’s such heavy worldbuilding, and it sparkled with color and magic. The same is true in this book. The world and the magic came to life for me.
Sadly, worldbuilding came at the expense of the characters. Kallia was the most well-developed character, and I liked how ambitious and determined she was. Some readers might be annoyed by her confidence, as she’s a prima donna through and through, but I found it humorous. I liked Demarco too. He started off gruff and stand-offish, but once he started falling for Kallia, his soft side showed. We didn’t learn much of his backstory, so I look forward to a big reveal in the sequel, fingers crossed. Jack is supposed to be sexy and mysterious, but I just found him to be toxic and manipulative, honestly.
I also felt let down that the competition wasn’t a bigger part of the story. It’s at the center of the plot, but we never learn any of the other magician’s names. We don’t get to watch their acts—we only see Kallia’s, and we’re told that hers are far superior. I think I would have enjoyed it more if Kallia interacted more with her competition. It also would have brought some much-needed nuance to the feminist messaging. Part of this story centers around the injustice that women are not allowed to be show magicians, essentially, and to illustrate this, most of the men come off as one-dimensional jerks. Kallia is also pretty dismissive of men, even telling her assistant: “pretty boys should be seen and not heard.” While I like #girlpower books normally, the way it was handled in this book rubbed me the wrong way. Now, I did love Kallia’s assistant, Aaros. He was super sweet and loyal, just a complete gem, and I wanted a lot more of him.
If you love strong female characters and beautiful worldbuilding, I recommend this book. Not all the elements of it worked for me, but I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I can see why it became popular before its release.