Author: A.G. Howard
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Published: January 10, 2017
Rating: 1 / 5
For People Who Liked: Twilight, The Mortal Instruments, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
*This is not a spoiler-free review! (A spoiler-free review can be found on Goodreads!)
Wow… This author sure is doing… a lot. I wish I could say it’s in a way I enjoy, but it’s not. I first stumbled upon RoseBlood at YALC back in July. I can’t tell you why this book of all upcoming releases promoted at the YA convention was the one I was going to spend months watching out for, but it was. It was the retelling of Phantom of the Opera that got me. I love a good retelling, and gothics only clinch it for me.
I guess the one thing I can say about A.G. Howard is that she knows her shtick. Not that it’s a very good shtick. Just that she knows what she likes and she does it her way. It just so happens that she does it badly. In terms of retellings, there’s nothing remotely original about this story. The way I would define a retelling is taking an old classic and spinning it into a new adventure.
That’s not what Howard’s doing here.
Instead, what we get is a bizarre information dump of every single piece of research the author’s done on Phantom of the Opera (which, according to her website and author’s notes doesn’t actually culminate to a lot). Not only do some of the original characters show up in this story, but so does the book itself. So I have to ask: is it a retelling if the characters are canonically aware of the original text? If the protagonist is obsessed with Phantom of the Opera and then happens to find herself ensnared by the phantom himself?
As a standalone completely separate from the original text, I would say maybe it’s a little more interesting? That’s being far too generous to the terrible writing though. There are aspects I would say in a far better written story, I’d really like. The story is set in this gothic abandoned opera house in France… Vampires are (sort of???) involved… There are graveyards… Mad scientist things keep happening… It could’ve been so good…
Instead, what we get is this terribly cringe-worthy narration with one dimensional characters and weird quirks that are just there… to be weird. Every single character gets a painstakingly detailed physical description from the colour of their hair to their clothes. Which isn’t that unusual as far as description goes. But Howard pairs that with their so totally weird hobbies they do in their spare time and… that’s it. That’s her character development, done. It’s as if she’s interpreted modern day gothic literature to be the golden age of emo from 2007. All the characters sound like they shop at Hot Topic and do all the things they do just to be extra. In an opera school, which presumably teaches opera, we get a handful of weird teachers who do weird things in their spare time including: mad science experiments, having tea parties with mannequins, taxidermy, and graveyard fanaticism. This would be really cool, if it meant anything to the plot whatsoever. And guess what?
I kept waiting for there to be a big reveal at the end where they all come together to reveal “ha HA! We were in on it all along!” and they pulled together their weird expertise to culminate to something insane.
That’s not what happened.
…and I haven’t even gotten to the main plot. The premise of the story is that Rune is being shipped off to this prestigious opera school outside of Paris, which apparently only accepts American students, because she did something horrible in her hometown. But her big, quirky thing is that she has some sort of musical Tourettes. In that she sings… uncontrollably. …and apparently this is so severe, it could kill people. Oh, but it’s only ever triggered by opera. So her mother… sends her off to a school, where there is nothing but opera singers? Everywhere? All the time? Seemingly the logic here is so she can learn to control her musical struggles. This would make more sense, if there was a single hint that this school actually bothers to teach any form of music. Instead, all there is is an opera performance, which needs to find its leading lady. You would think in any other variation of this story, the protagonist would be going for that role and fight for it.
She avoids it like the plague, even though she’s clearly the best singer there, and when she gets the part, makes an excuse and gives it to her friend. Again, this would be a nice twist, if Howard bothered to even have this friend of hers show up for longer than one or two scenes. None of these characters matter, and in extension, nothing Rune does matters. She spends an exorbitant amount of time trying to figure out what causes her uncontrollable singing and has zero self-preservation skills. She’s got no agency, and even less clue.
Which brings me to the love interest. Thorn (yes, his name is Thorn, because that was the name the Phantom gave him…) casually stalks Rune her entire life. Now, I get this is taking a page out of Phantom of the Opera itself. Christine Daae grew up with the Angel of Music watching over her, which turns out to be the Phantom, terrorizing her for his own ends. That’s dark and creepy and he gets his just desserts at the end. Cool. Except here, Thorn and Rune have this psychic connection they’ve had all their lives, so by the time he physically stalks her and watches her in her bedroom, she’s apparently fine with it? He pulls together this convoluted plan to bring her to the Phantom by giving her this bleeding rose. Bleeding. Rose. RoseBlood. See what she did there? This is a motif that shows up again and again and again as if bleeding roses are a thing that actually exist and show up on a regular basis in gothic literature? Do they? I’ve read a pretty fair amount of gothic literature and I don’t… I don’t think that’s a thing.
It’s not a thing.
After a drawn out series of creepy steps to get her to meet him for the first time, Rune shows up and is instantly enamoured with him. …even though he’s literally stalking her and intruding on her thoughts. She later sneaks out to a rave club to see him again, where he and the Phantom psychologically date rape the entire club. As in they lure people into the club, sap them of their energies and then drug them to conveniently forget? And apparently because they’ve drugged everyone, it makes it okay? There is far too much talk of “oh, but it’s okay, because they’ve just been drugged.” Um…?
When is that ever okay?
Not even if you are a “psychic” vampire is it okay. Not just vampires. Psychic. Vampires. If this were a real, legit vampire story, I want some good, old fashioned consequences to their actions. The thing with vampires is, they know what they’re doing is messed up, as does the author. That’s what makes them so horrifying. They’re predators. This is precisely why vampires shouldn’t be glamorised or romanticised! If there was a single ounce of “my god, they’re drugging the whole club and draining their souls, we should stop them!” I’d be into it.
But this is not. How you write vampires!
One final thing that just puts the nail in the coffin for me (heh) is this mad scientist subplot (if you can even call it that), which finally comes full circle by the end of the novel. One of the other totally super weird things that happens in this novel is there are animals in the woods surrounding the opera house that make noises other animals would make. Crows meowing, swans, croaking… it’s a cacophony of weird! It turns out that Thorn’s totally super weird quirk is that he surgically experiments on animals who are hurt. Which apparently involves swapping their vocal cords. Now, I’m not an expert in anatomy, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how vocals work. Especially when it later comes to swapping other people’s vocal cords? It’s like that weird b-movie trope that if you swap someone’s brain or heart with a serial killer’s you’ll get a Jekyll and Hyde situation. That’s not a scientifically accurate thing… Maybe that’s what Howard was going for, but if she was, throw some supernatural potion in or something to make it a little more believable.
This is a cult classic d-movie in the making if ever there was one. It’s the kind of thing little emo 16 year old me and her friends would’ve read or watched and laughed at hysterically during a sleepover or something. Except there’s not a chance this would ever get filmed by anyone in their right mind. So if you’re interested in reading it, maybe… don’t. And read Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde instead… Even the original Phantom of the Opera itself. Literally any other gothic classic but this one. And if you want some campy, gothic crack, go watch Rocky Horror. (No, seriously. Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be a far better use of your time, by far.) Hell. You could read the infamous worst Harry Potter fanfiction ever written, My Immortal and have a richer reading experience.
There are so many way better gothic stories out there. Go read or watch them instead.