Book Review

Nocturne

Nocturne

  • Author: Alyssa Wees
  • Genre: YA Fantasy
  • Publication Date: February 21, 2023
  • Publisher: Del Rey Books

Thank you to NetGalley and Del Rey Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: death of a sibling, death of a parent, grief, blood, murder, violence

In this haunting, lyrical fantasy set in 1930s Chicago, a talented ballerina finds herself torn between her dreams and her desires when she’s pursued by a secretive patron who may be more than he seems.

Growing up in Chicago’s Little Sicily in the years following the Great War, Grace Dragotta has always wanted to be a ballerina, ever since she first peered through the windows of the Near North Ballet Company. So when Grace is orphaned, she chooses the ballet as her home, imagining herself forever ensconced in a transcendent world of light and beauty so different from her poor, immigrant upbringing.

Years later, with the Great Depression in full swing, Grace has become the company’s new prima ballerina—though achieving her long-held dream is not the triumph she once envisioned. Time and familiarity have tarnished that shining vision, and her new position means the loss of her best friend in the world. Then she attracts the attention of the enigmatic Master La Rosa as her personal patron, and realizes the world is not as small or constricted as she had come to fear.

Who is her mysterious patron, and what does he want from her? As Grace begins to unlock the Master’s secrets, she discovers that there is beauty in darkness as well as light, finds that true friendship cannot be broken by time or distance, and realizes there may be another way entirely to achieve the transcendence she has always sought

As a lifelong fan of ballet, this story immediately caught my attention. Historical fantasy can be gorgeous when it’s done well, and this one had some incredible elements that set it up to be a fabulous story, however, the execution fell short for me for a variety of reasons.

The first thing that I noticed was the writing. I love lyrical, beautiful, and descriptive writing, so the description was initially a selling point. Once I started reading, I quickly became frustrated with the exceptionally flowery and overly purple writing. At every possible opportunity, the author used long and drawn out descriptions of everything from emotions to colors to surroundings to sounds, often incorporating strange similes and metaphors. There were so many paragraphs devoted to these descriptions when a simple sentence would have done, and it was frustrating to slog through all these descriptions of something so mundane.

I did like the historical descriptions of Depression-era Chicago, especially the differences between those who live in poverty and those who are wealthy. There are characters representative of both socioeconomic strata in society. And seeing how Grace came from the poor, immigrant area of Chicago, I was expecting to see more of her struggle in this story. As a young girl in a single parent home, her brother died as a result of his working with gangsters, her mother died from illness, and they often struggled with lack of heat and not enough food. 

Instead of seeing her obstacles, as she’s forced to play violin on the street to earn money, she just kind of wanders into a ballet school and is immediately taken in and given not only a place at the school, but also room and board. It kind of felt like everything was handed to her, and we don’t see her struggle very much at all. Even once she’s at the school, despite the fact that she isn’t the best technical dancer or the most skilled, she’s rapidly promoted to not only prima ballerina, but is granted an elite title normally reserved for ballerinas who have demonstrated the most exceptional of skills in their generation of dancers.

Ultimately, these gifts come about as the result of her patron, Master La Rosa, and the relationship that develops between these two is incredibly imbalanced and unhealthy. For so much of Grace’s story, she doesn’t really make many of her own decisions, and just kind of lets life happen to her. She comes across as incredibly naïve and blind to what is going on right in front of her face, satisfied to live in her own fantasies, and hope for a better life without actually taking steps to make it happen. It isn’t until the end of the story that she starts showing some agency, and the character development was lacking for Grace, while the side characters were flat and underdeveloped.

This story brought to mind Belladonna by Adalyn Grace, with the relationship between the MC and Death, although I felt much more invested in that story than I did in this one. The plot in this book felt much more muddled, as if it was inspired by multiple stories but instead of simply drawing from them and turning it into something new, it attempted to mash them up and didn’t manage to do so successfully. There were elements of Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera, and Hades and Persephone, but ultimately not quite getting across a clear message of any of these or a unique one.

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