“As I Descended” by Robin Talley

As I Descended | Stand-Alone | ISBN 9780062409232 | HarperTeen, 2016 | 4 out of 5 Points

“Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them. Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey. Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world with a pointed look, or a carefully placed word.

But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to make their dreams come true. And the first step is unseating Delilah for the Kingsley Prize. The full scholarship, awarded to Maria, will lock in her attendance at Stanford―and four more years in a shared dorm room with Lily. Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school. But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.”

ELLA’S REVIEW

I hate darkness. I don’t mean this in the usual „Oh, it’s dark, I can’t see, how unfortunate!“ way. One of my biggest irrational fears is darkness. I know the room is the same it would be if the lights were on but I panic anyway. I can’t stay in a dark room for longer than a few seconds before I panic. What’s even worse than darkness is the kind of darkness you can’t make go away. When I was a child we used to have a lot of power outages and I think my fear of the dark might have developed because of that. One minute I’d be watching something on the telly with my family, the next the room would be pitch black and silent. Someone would eventually get up and get a torch or some candles but they would never give enough light to reach into all the corners and to this day I’m super uncomfortable whenever there isn’t enough light to make all the shadows go away.

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

I’m telling you this because this book is basically the embodiment of the kind of feeling I get whenever the shadows get too deep and because darkness, shadows and power outages are a recurring theme in the book. It’s set at prestigious Acheron school, located in a crumbling plantation building in Virginia where the power goes out every other day and there’s a ghost story lurking around every corner. “As I Descended” is dark, in a way that Young Adult horror usually isn’t. I liked that. The thing is, I don’t think “As I Descended” is all too scary. I’m spooked easily but I read great portions of this book at night in the semi-dark (never a good idea for me but I keep doing it) and even though there were some super exciting spooky scenes, the book in itself isn’t really spooky. It’s terrifyingly exciting though and dark in a complex, heavy way that won’t thrill you as much as it will make you feel uncomfortable in the very best way.

I first got interested in “As I Descended” because people kept describing it as a LGBTQ retelling of Macbeth and that’s basically what it is. The blurb already tells you that the main character, Maria, has a girlfriend. In fact Maria is bisexual and her girlfriend Lily is a lesbian, but they’re not the only LGBTQ characters in “As I Descended”. In fact, almost everyone is LGBTQ. There’s also a plethora of characters of colour and Lily is disabled – she’s depending on crutches ever since her legs got badly hurt when she was nine. I thought the portrayal of Lily’s disability and the way people at Acheron treat her was especially stellar. Lily is a brilliant character anyway but so is Maria. They’re both twisted bordering on evil but you’ll still find yourself rooting for them for most part of the novel. There’s something I need to tell you though, if you’re interested in reading this book for the representation, so here’s a mild spoiler. Read at your own risk.

This is probably just a spoiler if you don't know Macbeth

I want to make it very clear that Talley’s portrayal of race issues, LGBTQ issues and Lily’s disability is pretty good most of the time. It’s well done. But it’s not going to be the representation many readers want so what I’m saying is approach with caution if you’d like to read it for the representation. There are other less spoilery problems here, not when it comes to the portrayal of the characters themselves but the way Talley writes about them. Brandon apparently became instantly popular after coming out as gay – like, come on. Would this really happen at a Southern elitist boarding school? It would not. There were quite a few instances where the characters alluded to people getting unfair advantages for being gay which isn’t realistic and actually quite gross since that’s the kind of logic homophobes use when gay people achieve anything. You got your book published? They must’ve done it out of pity because you’re gay! “Moonlight” won the Oscar? They just won because the film is gay! When in fact it’s so much harder for LGBTQ people to achieve these things because discrimination happens.

LET NO LIGHT SEE MY BLACK AND DEEP DESIRES

I really loved “As I Descended”’s setting. I really wasn’t expecting this Southern Gothic atmosphere from a Macbeth retelling but it fit the story really well and the American South is always a great setting for a ghost story, isn’t it? As far as the ghost story goes, Talley does rely a lot on horror tropes. There’s an oujia board scene right in the beginning, ghosts writing messages on mirrors, chandeliers crashing down… we’ve seen this before. But Talley uses these old tropes so well, she makes them work. She adds an original spin to each trope so I found myself really enjoying these scenes instead of rolling my eyes whenever a tropey scene comes up in a horror novel.

I usually don’t read retellings, it’s just not something I enjoy a lot, but this one is done so well I was intrigued from the very first page. Talley manages the perfect balance between writing an original Young Adult novel and following the original storyline of Macbeth enough for it to be recognisable throughout the story. Macbeth is now teenage girl Maria Lyon, Queen Bee in waiting at Acheron Academy, only second to actual Queen Bee Delilah Dufrey. So Maria and Lily, her very own Lady Macbeth, decide to make sure Delilah won’t reign over Acheron for much longer… Look, I can’t really explain why this is awesome. Shakespearean drama usually doesn’t translate well to modern day high school drama but somehow in this book it does. Because Talley makes it serious enough. She convinces us that yes, Maria’s struggle to become the queen of Acheron is of the same dimensions as Macbeth’s struggle to become king of Scotland.

This book is basically “10 Things I Hate About You”’s scary little gothic sister. They both find the perfect balance between a modern high school setting and drama of Shakespearian proportions. What I liked most about this is how Maria and Lily actually do wrong. They do so many horrible, horrible things and they aren’t excused for them ever. Yes, it’s not quite as bad as what Macbeth does in the original play but this is Young Adult fiction after all. Talley makes sure we know that these girls are so obsessed with each other and popularity that they’re actually spiralling towards madness. It’s a great look at obsessive love in the modern age and how it can change and corrupt people but it’s also about power and how far people are willing to go to achieve it. I really liked it.

FAIR IS FOUL AND FOUL IS FAIR

I didn’t like all of it though. I mean, 4 points is a good rating and all but I’m not giving this 5 points for a reason. That reason being that even though the writing was beautiful, I felt it dragged a lot, especially in the beginning. Scenes are dragged out by unnecessary dialogue and descriptions and even though they’re still super exciting, it takes away from the suspense. The oujia board scene in the beginning was so. long. It shouldn’t have been that long, it could have easily been edited more which would have made it even more exciting. This happened quite a lot, especially when it came to the more suspenseful scenes. Talley is a great writer and her descriptions are on point but when Maria is walking through the haunted forest I don’t really care what everything looks like in detail, I care about other things then. I loved the descriptions of the old plantation building, the characters and the setting in general but I didn’t need them all the time and quite a few times they took away from what was actually happening.

The other reason I just don’t want to give this book a five star rating is what I’ve said in the spoiler above. A lot of you won’t care, a lot of you will. I’m totally caring. I’m not going to say more about this since it’s all explained in the spoiler above and seeing how this is Macbeth and Talley is keeping it pretty close to the original storyline most of the time you can probably guess why I’m on the fence about this book’s diverse cast.

“As I Descended” is a great book. It’s an atmospheric gothic retelling of Macbeth for teens and adults alike with interesting characters and a well thought-out suspenseful plot. “As I Descended” isn’t exactly thrilling but it’s quite scary now and then and Lily and Maria’s descend into madness was really well written and believable. I loved “As I Descended” a lot but now and then the writing style was just too opulent, especially during the suspenseful and spooky scenes, and I’m still on the fence about the diversity. I would usually applaud any YA book with a cast that’s 90% diverse but taking into account what happens in “As I Descended” and how little positive LGBTQ books for teens there are out there I’m not sure this book should be as diverse as it is. I’m sure that a lot of LGBTQ readers might just be disappointed or even worse. Nevertheless “As I Descended” is a great YA gothic mystery, an expertly written retelling of Macbeth for a younger generation and very entertaining if you’re into ghost stories, southern gothic or Shakespeare retellings.

About Ella

Ella is a writer and historian by day and a reader by night time. She lives by the North Sea and has managed to fill all empty spaces in her small apartment with books. She's 24.

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