It’s no surprise that young adult characters are sometimes judged from a mature, experienced lens for decisions that are very much based on their ‘young’ age. So I always set a reminder for myself while reading YA books: don’t judge the protagonist too much for their choices and simply comment on them from the story’s purpose. Reading Bright Ruined Things forced me to go back to this reminder again and again. Mae has lived all her life on magician Lord Prosper’s private island—in a mansion where spirits serve the rich family. Her presence, as the daughter of a passed-away mansion’s steward, is an orphan barely tolerated and will be in exile on her eighteenth birthday.
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Mae fears this family but also desires to belong, especially on this land she has always called home. She has a best friend, Coco, who is the Lord’s granddaughter and has a crush on Coco’s cousin, Miles, who is disaffected. Luckily, Mae is offered a chance to marry in the family: to the adopted son, Ivo, who is a grumpy heir to Lord Prosper. When a legendary First Night rolls in to celebrate the yearly commemoration of Lord Prosper’s harnessing the island’s magic, Mae is determined to capture Miles and become a magical Prosper—to not just escape the engagement with Ivo she’s suddenly thrust into but also to still belong and reap the protection that comes with this powerful island.
But the land is dying and the spirits are sickening, making it difficult to harness magic. As the perfect evening unravels betrayals and secrets, and Mae attempts to save the island, she is torn between the magic she has always aspired to inherit and the realisation of what it demands in exchange. Spanned over twenty-four hours, this intriguing story about social ladders and glorious worlds follows a complicated mystery with suspenseful undertones. Sadly, the marketing fails the book as it isn’t truly a retelling of The Tempest but is simply inspired by the Shakespearean tale, and the 1920s setting feels vague. The time it promises to take the readers back to, with the Gatsby vibes, seems like any random secondary period owned by rich people and magical spirits. While Chloe Gong’s debut is set in 1920s China, there’s a timeliness that These Violent Delights delivers through world-building, culture, and fashion. Not to compare but Cohoe doesn’t manage to transport us to an era that could’ve made for a great backdrop for this story. Similarly, the glamour promised through the cover also seems unpolished and a better recommendation for that particular aspect would be Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles.
Mae is a determined protagonist but isn’t a strong heroine right from the start. She is often just a victim of the magical system put in place by those high up in class hierarchy, and even those she associates with (Coco, Miles, and Ivo) drive her through the respect or commitment they command—even if unsaid—through the magical power they hold. Though, the story does give her this need to simply be a catalyst because of the confinement she has always experienced and the curiosity that has always plagued her mind. So she can be understood as a main character but can’t really be cheered for. Still, there’s a change, a development in her personality worth appreciating towards the end. Unfortunately, the slow pacing makes you choke even before you reach the changing lanes and the relationships that could have motivated a reader to push through—whether romantic options or the almost-manipulative friendship—don’t give you enough to hold onto. The quirky Ivo did pull in and the ultimate revelations did surprise but the glimmering bits were overshadowed by the rest.
Bright Ruined Things, Samantha Cohoe
Wednesday Books, February 2022
Note: A review copy was acquired via the publicist.