Goodreads: Bright Ruined Things
Publication Date: October 26, 2021
Forbidden magic, a family secret, and a night to reveal it all…
The only life Mae has ever known is on the island, living on the charity of the wealthy Prosper family who control the magic on the island and the spirits who inhabit it. Mae longs for magic of her own and to have a place among the Prosper family, where her best friend, Coco, will see her as an equal, and her crush, Miles, will finally see her. Now that she’s eighteen, Mae knows her time with the Prospers may soon come to an end.
But tonight is First Night, when the Prospers and their high-society friends return to the island to celebrate the night Lord Prosper first harnessed the island’s magic and started producing aether – a magical fuel source that has revolutionized the world. With everyone returning to the island, Mae finally has the chance to go after what she’s always wanted.
When the spirits start inexplicably dying, Mae starts to realize that things aren’t what they seem. And Ivo, the reclusive, mysterious heir to the Prosper magic, may hold all the answers – including a secret about Mae’s past that she doesn’t remember. As Mae and her friends begin to unravel the mysteries of the island, and the Prospers’ magic, Mae starts to question the truth of what her world was built on.
In this YA fantasy, Samantha Cohoe wonderfully mixes magic and an atmospheric setting into a fantastically immersive world, with characters you won’t be able to forget.
The Tempest has never been my favorite Shakespeare play, but Cohoe takes the idea of a magical island where spirits are tamed to do a master’s bidding and builds her own story around questions of identity, belonging, power, and love that had me riveted and wanting to know how protagonist Mae’s journey would end. From her initial desire to learn magic for herself and ensure she could keep the island as her home to her ultimate questioning of everything she’s ever known, I was cheering for her to find herself and get the happy ending she deserves.
While the structure of the story and the characterization initially seem straightforward (Mae wants to learn magic, to stay on the island, to catch the eye of one of the Prosper boys), I quickly realized that everything was a bit more convoluted than I expected. And every time I thought I had a handle on what was happening, Cohoe managed to nuance it even more. Every time I thought, “Oh, this character is a jerk” or, “Oh, this is what will happen next,” Cohoe mixed things up. I experienced a roller coaster of emotions, not entirely sure which characters I should be rooting for or what outcome I should be hoping for, as Cohoe ultimately shows that everyone is multi-faceted, and a single bad (or good) act doesn’t define someone.
I find I’m often fairly good at predicting what will happen in books, so it’s nice when I’m genuinely taken by surprise — and I love that in Bright Ruined Things it’s not because there’s some wild climatic event I didn’t seen coming; it’s because the characters keep surprising me again and again with their thoughts and their motivations and their actions. (And their evolving characterization is natural; Cohoe isn’t making them do out of character things for the sake of plot.) I love how it made me constantly reassess the characters and try to figure out what they were doing and why, as well as what was important to them.
The setting is also a nice touch, though I wouldn’t call it the main draw. The island itself feels very real; I could picture it as I read, from the paths Mae likes to the run to the spirits that create never-ending music in the sky. The 1920s aspect feels more inconsequential. Cohoe does describe some fashion and art of the era that make it clear that’s when the story is occurring, but I think the marketing suggesting Bright Ruined Things has a Great Gatsby vibe might be overblown.
Overall, this is a fantastically thoughtful and engaging book that stands out as something different in the crowded YA market.
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