Dear book, this is one of those instances where it’s not you, it’s me. At least I think so. On paper – pardon the pun – you had it all. A Shakespeare retelling, a diverse cast, some supernatural happenings and a talented author to weave it all together. Alas, there was simply no chemistry between us. Believe me, no one is more disappointed than I am. I hope we can still be friends.
Now that I’ve spilled my heart out to an intimate object, let’s start back at the beginning.
As I Descended is the third offering from award-winning author Robin Talley, and is a retelling of Macbeth set at a haunted boarding school populated by privileged students. Funnily enough, Macbeth is one of the few Shakespeare stories that I haven’t read, but you don’t need to have done so to make sense of the story.
Most retellings fail because they stick too close to the original without adding any fresh new takes, but no worries about that here. She’s flipped gender, race and orientation from the classic and placed it in an entirely new setting. While maintaining the central themes of ambition and destruction, manipulation and madness.
Maria and Lily are the power couple of the prestigious Acheron Academy – well, they would be, if they were out of the closet. Maria is Latina, popular, bisexual, and second-best at everything at school, behind the notorious Delilah Dufrey. Delilah is a golden girl in their circle of friends – wealthy, beautiful, smart and talented. She is also a promiscuous drug user, and her exports make for endless gossip fodder. In short, she is equally loved and despised, and the only thing that stands in the way of Maria and a scholarship that will allow her to attend university with her girlfriend Lily.
Lily, on the other hand, comes from a conservative family. She’s also on crutches, a result of a serious car accident when she was younger. She’s a complicated one, and adept at manipulating Maria into doing what she feels will be best for them. Maria, in turn, is ambitious and manages endless justifications for her actions. The combination of the two is problematic, and ultimately fatal.
The author also ups the ante with the creepiness factor – the boarding school is haunted and these ghosts are not of the friendly variety. They are malevolent spirits that cause accidents and deaths and general mayhem.
However, my issues with the book were twofold. Firstly, the characters never felt developed enough beyond their obvious attributes, and I really struggled to connect with them. Secondly, the motivations that set off the whole chain of doomed events just didn’t feel authentic enough to me. Surely there are other ways to figure out how to get to a college with your secret love that don’t involve murderous actions?
Despite my complaints, the author certainly has a way with words. Furthermore, the book is populated with a diverse set of characters, and makes some interesting comments on the nature of disability, sexuality, class and culture.