Magic Most Foul, Book 1
Author: Leanna Renee Hieber
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Source: Won from Leanna Renee Hieber in Twitter Chat
Description from Goodreads:
I was obsessed.
It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I'd ever seen--everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable...utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.
There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive. Trapped within his golden frame.
I've crossed over into his world within the painting, and I've seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me too. He and I are inextricably linked--bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan. Unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.
First Sentence: "To whoever should have the misfortune to review this closed—but still unresolved—case, I extend my condolences."
I suppose I should have known after a string of good reads that I would soon be in for a disappointment. My hopes were high for Darker Still, which I've heard compared to Jane Austen with magic. That sounded AWESOME. Unfortunately, what I found was a fairly typical YA paranormal romance complete with instalove and a ditsy heroine.
Before I get into the things I didn't like, I'll talk about the aspect that I liked: the concept. The basic story holds a lot of appeal for me. The handsome boy trapped in a painting has vague echoes of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, though obviously the circumstances here are different. Traveling into a painting also sounds completely neat. Even the fact that Natalie could travel into the painting through her dreams was a nice addition, suggesting some interest things about the soul and connections.
The biggest problem I had was with Natalie. In a first person narrative (Darker Still is told primarily through Natalie's diary), characterization is even more vital than usual, and I did not like Natalie from the very beginning. Though I think I at first had hopes that her muteness would make her a unique heroine, she remained as petty, though entirely unaware of it, as all of the other society girls. She lost any sympathy I had for her voice lost in a childhood trauma when she said this of a blind girl engaged to the young man Natalie dreamed of for herself: "But alas, I'll have to find some other handsome young scholar with a penchant for unfortunates since Edgar stupidly went and got himself engaged to one. So what if she's blind? She can't see how beautiful he is. What a waste!" That unsympathetic, bitchy tirade turned me off to her entirely, and she never did anything to recover my estimation of her.
The writing perfectly matches Natalie's character. This is both a good and bad thing. Obviously, it's good for there to be a strong sense of character in a book told in first person. However, it is unfortunate when that person is not particularly bright. Darker Still teems with fragments and simple sentences. Natalie's diary is vapid and the writing made me want to headdesk. I believe Hieber did do this intentionally, as the writing from the news articles and other statements was much improved, but the book is still mostly in a writing style that makes me batty.
Next up, we have the romance. Shy, nineteenth century mute Natalie stumbles into Jonathon's painting and into his arms. She has, of course, been transfixed by his appearance. Being the innocent she is, this even startles her into speech, clear only in this picture's small environs. This is a convenient plot point, because, as we learned in The Little Mermaid, guys actually do want their girls to talk.
Natalie and Jonathon promptly fall into instalove. Yup. What really upsets me about this is how quickly our good little nineteenth century Lutheran accustoms herself to physical contact (oh my) with Jonathon. That seemed rather out of character. The whole book takes place over the course of just two weeks, and I have trouble imagining that a girl with her background and that much to lose would rush into a physical relationship so quickly. Let's not forget, also, that they have their romantic moments in a portrait, sometimes while Mrs. Northe is watching. I don't know what can be seen while she's in there, but that's really not something you want to take a chance on. For the most part, there's is a typical YA paranormal romance where they seem to have little to nothing in common but for their circumstances and mutual attraction, but they do at least have one conversation not about the present.
The final thing, perhaps most damning (pun!) to me, were the religious undertones. I definitely was not expecting them, and was very much not thrilled to find them here. I don't want to go into much detail, but I had to mention it.
The redeeming factor of the book that lead me to bump the book up to a 2.5 from a 2 is Mrs. Northe. She sort of adopts young Natalie, and is the one person in the book who is entirely comfortable with Natalie as a mute. If there's a love story here, it's one of an adopted daughter, because Mrs. Northe is, as I see it, the only one who truly acceps the best and worst of Natalie. Jonathon didn't get to see it all. Mrs. Northe is funny, spunky and one of those old ladies with a steely glint in her eye, the kind who would be played in a movie by someone like Dame Judi Dench or Maggie Smith, only around age 40. She looks classy, but will say exceedingly surprising and inappropriate things. For example, she gave me hope with the quote I shared down below. This is what I want to say to ALL of the instaloving couples.
My overall feelings about this book definitely ended up being rather meh. I think the book turned out the way Hieber intended, and it will be delightful for people who enjoy Natalie's way of thinking. Though I do not plan to read the sequel, I will probably try one of Hieber's books for adults to see if I like those better, since I can see promise shining through.
Favorite Quote: "'Just don't say that you'll die without the other one or that you'll never love again or that you're not whole—' She batted her hand. 'That's the stuff of Romeo and Juliet, hasty nonsense, and you know how well that turned out. There's magic about the two of you, yes. Just don't be desperate about it. That's where souls go wrong, when they think they don't have choices. The heart must make choices.'"
"Watching the painting come to life
Shifting and shaping
It all goes it all goes it all goes by"
Shifting and shaping
It all goes it all goes it all goes by"