Quick review for a prolonged read (I had to recheck this book from the library several times because it kept getting holds placed on it, but I finally found a stretch to read it the whole way through). This is my second narrative experience from Robin Talley. “As I Descended” is touted as a retelling/reimaging of Macbeth, centered on two girls (Maria and Lily) at an elite school who enact upon a dastardly scheme to take a scholarship opportunity from a popular queen bee (Delilah), but their plan goes several steps too far and unleashes a downward spiral involving a haunted campus, vengeful spirits, revenge games, and overarching obsession with power. Added bonus: a diverse cast of characters including characters of color and prominent GLBT relationships at the forefront. By the summary/plot promise itself, I was definitely going to pick this up, even excited to have the opportunity to do so.
My thoughts in the aftermath of reading this are more mixed, however. I loved how darkly textured this novel was, some of the scenes are downright creepy not just in the visual aspects of the spirits and conflict involved, but actually have some well placed scenes of internal conflict among the characters, especially Maria – who starts off the novel rather naive and good at heart, but takes this downwards spiral as more events in the novel transpire and she gets more obsessed with the power in her grasp. She gets to the point where she denies reality, denies opportunities for herself to lose given what she’s lost, and ultimately it’s a consuming process that doesn’t flinch on showing the burn. The tone and the intention of the novel were well noted.
The execution of this novel, on so many levels, was not good however. The problematic pacing stood out in my mind on one hand. I had to read this book in stretches and those stretches seemed more drawn out – taking me a while to get “in medias res”. Part of the reason might’ve been the rambling musings of the characters within, many times with self-deprecating anecdotes (because, let’s be real, this cast of characters is complicated and very, very flawed). The narrative moves in and out of the action, in and out of the creepiness, and that’s an issue in itself. The characters also feel like they’re missing an extra layer of depth. I get on some levels they’re players on a stage (*cough* pun *cough*), but I kept wanting to have more than just a surface level of connection with them.
Which lends me to discuss my next point of contention in this book: while I love the fact this book FEATURES a wide range of representation (characters of color, bisexual characters, gay characters, character with a disability, etc.), the ACTUAL representation of these characters in the context of the story gives me pause, even to the point where I was really uncomfortable reading and had to put the book down in spaces. I didn’t expect some of the rampant homophobic/biphobic slurs and commentaries that some of the characters in here spout. Granted, there are FEW opportunities where the characters shut this kind of language down, but it’s still so prevalent that you can’t separate that from the experience of the novel. I thought some characters really didn’t have good representation at all, if by absence of said representation (i.e. Lily’s disability in many places was masked) or representation where it was marred by very notable cliches (i.e. Maria and Mateo were very distinct caricatures of their race in places, and the fact that a group of Latino guys were essentially labeled as criminals just because of Maria’s story to try to throw blame away from her…nah, dude. That didn’t sit right with me at all).
It’s hard to reconcile the good of this novel when there’s so much of it that just didn’t work well with the material it had. It’s not the fact that this is a retelling/reimaging of MacBeth that’s the issue, it’s the way the narrative chose its focus. The focus could’ve been inclusive and thrilling without necessarily ceding to these cliches and problematic portrayals.
In the end, I’m willing to give credit to it having thrilling images and power plays for the horror novel it chooses to be, but at the same time I think so much of the narrative aim and presentation could’ve been better to make it more enthralling as well as inclusive. While it’s difficult to say – with how darkly toned this novel is based on its source material – the inclusions could’ve been completely positive, it could’ve had more impact if the characters had more solid foundations and the focus was maintained on how they manipulated each other for their own goals and ends rather than using their identities in negative portrayals. Even if the intention was dark humor, dark humor does better when punctuated with characters fleshed out and situations developed enough to support it.
Overall score: 2.5/5 stars.