Thursday, March 10, 2016

Review: The Vengeful Half by Jaclyn Dolamore

Cover of The Vengeful Half, featuring a grayscale illustration of a young white girl with a bob sinking into the arms of a dark-haired, brown-skinned boy wearing a black suit. She looks fearfully to one side, while a red, feminine figure with abnormally long fingers looms over the couple and reaches out to grasp them.
Review copy provided by the author via NetGalley. In the interests of full disclosure, be aware I beta read an early version of this book.

THE VENGEFUL HALF [Amazon| Kobo] is veteran author Jaclyn Dolamore’s first venture into self-publishing. She’s released five novels through Bloomsbury and Disney Hyperion, but chose a different path for her new series so she could have greater control over each volume’s release schedule, packaging, and bonus content, as she wrote about in greater detail on her blog.

The book centres on sixteen-year-old Olivia, an exile from the Hidden Lands adjoining Earth. Olivia and her mother, Adelise, live in America so’s to avoid the man Adelise cursed after he destroyed her husband, but their quiet life gets a whole lot more exciting when an intriguing boy from their homeland tracks them down.

Alfred inherited Adelise’s curse when his gangster grandfather died. He’s been blind ever since; something his parents would very much like to rectify, against Alfred’s wishes. No sooner has he voiced his request, though, than a rival faction whisks in and abducts Adelise. Desperate to help her mother, Olivia follows Alfred into the Hidden Lands--and discovers her own terrifying past in this unfamiliar world of dark magic and strange delights.

Ooh, friends, this was awesome! I began it the very moment it hit my ereader, other obligations be damned, and only reluctantly emerged until I’d reached the final page. It made me giggle, it made me cry, and it gave me a fascinating new sphere to explore.

Y’all know how much I love poking around in a well-built world.

The Hidden Lands stand adjacent to Earth, with a few long-established passages and common spells that allow those in the know to pop back and forth between the two. This creates a certain amount of overlap between each place’s cultures. Once upon a time, the Hidden Lands influenced Earth’s mythology by introducing ideas like elves, faeries, and the Grim Reaper, to name a small handful. Over the last century, though, Earth has had an even larger influence on the Hidden Lands. Contemporary technologies like cars, televisions, and cell phones operate alongside (or in concert with) magic, and there’s a huge (albeit one way) pop cultural exchange. The Hidden Lands produces its own art that springs from its own native cultures, but it also eagerly imports Earthly music and media. The well-listened Hidden Lands music aficionado is as likely to listen to the Beatles as to Cherry Doll, a popular singer whose soul happens to live inside a magically animated doll body.

Which isn’t uncommon, though the Fanarlem (as the doll people are called) have only had even rudimentary rights for a few decades. Their situation provides an egress into some fascinating political and cultural history, and their fight for equality snaps into sharp focus as Olivia realizes her ties to them are stronger than she initially thinks.

This whole setup ticks scads of my boxes1. Y’all know how much I love secondary worlds that allow magic and technology to work together, and how excited I get when I encounter a fantasy that twists mythology in new ways. I’m on board for anything that takes a firm stand against slavery and in favour of working past prejudice. And I love it when characters get excited about the same sort of pop culture I myself geek out over; comics and nostalgic children’s shows and great songs and so forth. I was more than eager to wallow in the Hidden Lands and learn about its various traditions, Earth-influenced and otherwise.

And, perhaps best of all, I’m always glad to find portal fantasies where someone from another world travels to Earth instead of the other way around. It’s a simple yet intriguing twist on an old trope, and one that Olivia’s dual outsider status allows Dolamore to twist even further. Olivia has grown up in America, but she’s always been aware of where she’s from (at a sixty-year remove, given her mother’s exile). Likewise, Alfred knows a fair bit about Earth but hasn’t spent a whole lot of time there. Olivia has plenty to explore once she makes it to the Hidden Lands, giving the reader an opportunity to dig into the place right alongside her, while the scenes where she fills Alfred in on her Earthly ways provide a separate but related thrill.

These sorts of exchanges also allow us to know the characters on a deeper level. We see who Olivia is from multiple angles; what interests her, what drives her, and what terrifies her to the point where she has to force herself to engage with it. Dolamore subtly limns the changes Olivia goes through when she enters the Hidden Lands, providing further clues not just to Olivia’s character but also to the wider plot. It’s beautifully done, and it leaves the reader with a strong emotional connection to Olivia. I cried for her, y’all.

Alfred, too, has layers upon layers. He’s caught between his own desires and what his family wants for him, romantically, professionally, and, mostly importantly, where his blindness is concerned. Because Alfred is fine with being blind. The curse took effect when he was nine months old, so it’s all he’s ever known. Yeah, he has to do some things differently than a sighted person would, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing he lives with, and is fine with living with because it’s part of who he is. Changing it would change him in a way he can't welcome.

Dolamore considers Alfred’s blindness in some depth. Many of the accommodations he uses are thinks earthly blind people also have access to, like tools on his phone. He also watches movies and TV in something like described video thanks to his companion, George, who also reads aloud the mouldery old print books Alfred collects from estate sales. (All people of Alfred’s social class have companions as bodyguards and general helpers. George isn’t a blindness accommodation.)

Alongside this, he can also navigate for short stretches using telekinesis to form a mental image of the world around him. Dolamore prevents this ability from being an all-out magical blindness cure by rendering it so difficult that someone with Alfred’s magical abilities can only do it for about ten minutes at a stretch, and by making it something everyone with telepathy does now and again (for example, to find the best blind box figures). It's useful, but that's as far as it goes.

Dolamore also considers how people in the Hidden Lands regard disability, allowing the reader to consider their own, earthly prejudices. One of Alfred’s biggest problems is how his family reacts to his blindness. His mother is so horrified of what other people will think that she won’t let him do really simple, useful things, like use a cane or touch things to see what shape they are. She’d rather he use telekinesis 24/7 so no one will guess he’s blind; not a viable option even if Alfred were okay with pretending to be sighted, as discussed above. Dolamore navigates the line between Alfred’s affection for his family and the often ableist pressure they place on him to be someone he simply isn’t.

While Olivia and Alfred carry the story, Dolamore also delivers a wealth of interesting side characters, each of whom has their own inner life. The text forever acknowledges these people as people, even when they make upsetting choices or let their fear steer them down the wrong path. It’s beautifully done. No one, not even the story’s out-and-out villain, is completely awful, or completely impossible to understand.

The text also comes with plenty of great extras, including an essay on the story’s origins, history-obsessed Alfred’s take on the Hidden Lands, and a variety of illustrations and comics. These often tell related but tangential stories hinted at in the text, like Olivia’s adventures at homeschool potluck night, or Adelise and Estra’s instructions for assembling a puzzle.

And while I couldn’t test this myself as I use an ereader app aimed at sighted people, all the images should have descriptions embedded for those who use screen readers. Dolamore’s not about to pull a Netflix and deliver a story about a blind guy that blind readers can’t fully engage with.

Y’all, I loved the whole thing so very, very much. It’s exactly the sort of book that excites the hell out of me: beautifully constructed, character oriented, and imbued with both adorable warmth and deeply emotional drama. Dolamore works hard to do right by her characters and their world, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for everyone when the sequel releases later this year.

  1. On a personal level, I also got a real thrill out of seeing what the Hidden Lands are like in their final form, years after I first encounter them in some of Jackie’s early manuscripts. That made the world all the more fun to sort through, though I hasten to assure you the place is pretty durned great even if you’re just discovering it for the first time. This is heart-and-soul worldbuilding that infuses the entire text. You’re gonna love it.


  1. Oo, awesome! I have had a Dolamore book on my list for a while now -- maybe at your recommendation! -- but haven't gotten to it yet. One of these days, I'm going to plow through her backlist. It's so great when authors deal well with disabilities, especially. Eek this sounds excellent.

    1. She did lots of research to get Alfred's blindness right, including seeking help from blind beta readers.

  2. I have never read anything by Dolamore, so glad you enjoyed this one!

    1. You should check her out! Her first book, MAGIC UNDER GLASS, is on Scribd.