The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is not a long book, and yet reading through it felt like eternity. I have been reading the first half of the book for over a week; every time I picked it up I felt that I was forcing myself to do it. Nothing was happening, and the reveals were totally unsurprising for a book that is to a large extent a retelling of The Island of Doctor Moreau. The second half picked up the pace, and offered some entertainment, but never on par with my previous encounters with Moreno-Garcia’s books. In short, this is not a bad book, and yet it’s far from good, too. It’s mediocre, and I’m actually sad to say it, because all Moreno-Garcia’s novels that I have read before were pretty enjoyable – and quite remarkable, too. I had so much fun with the fungal creepiness of Mexican Gothic, and with the darker realistic vibes of Velvet Was the Night, and even the early fantastic unevenness of Certain Dark Things was entertaining.
Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January,has made its rounds around the blogosphere over the last two years, with predominantly – almost exclusively, in fact – positive reviews. And that’s what I remembered about them: they were all positive, sometimes even raving, and all praising the author’s imagination and poetic language. I should’ve paid more attention to the elements that weren’t complimented, I think, armed as I am now with hindsight.
You see, there are indeed many things that The Ten Thousand Doors of January should be praised for, particularly a highly inventive use of the symbolism and meaning of portals, thresholds and doors, successfully employing plenty of references to various myths and folktales I’m a sucker for. It is an entertaining, character-focused book, with languorously meandering action and an interesting cast of secondary characters. It’s also incredibly earnest, in that endearing puppy way, all big eyes and enthusiasm.
Another of recently re-published novels, with a new (very sumptuous and eye-catching) cover, The Beautiful Ones has been my first unsolicited NetGalley book – hurray! 😊 I’ve received more titles since then (and I’m still struggling with saying no), but that old-new Moreno-Garcia’s novel definitely caught my eye. Having read and enjoyed Mexican Gothic, I expected The Beautiful Ones to be similarly dark and unsettling. The blurb promised secret bitter truths, magic and telekinesis, so I envisioned a fin de siècle vampire story, somewhere along the lines of Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (no, I haven’t read that one, I’ve only watched the movie 😉). Alas, I should’ve listened to the reviewers who claim that no two Moreno-Garcia’s novels are alike – because this one turned out to be a very straightforward historical romance, or novel of manners, with a slight fantasy twist. To be honest, I felt that the fantasy elements were mostly decorative, and I had a distinct impression that they were there for a single purpose only – for one scene at the very end.
Let’s be clear: I don’t read romances. Not because I’d never touch them with a ten-foot pole (though I’m getting there) but because I have already read a few, mostly historical ones, and my observations to date indicate that 1) they are generally following a very simple formula; and 2) I just don’t like them. I don’t find myself interested or even slightly invested in the daring adventures of hearts, in the usually contrived obstacles between star-crossed lovers, and in the dramatic resolutions. No, not even Austen (gasp!).
Imagine my conundrum with The Beautiful Ones, then – which is as simplistic in terms of cast and as baroque in terms of plot convolutions as it can get away with. The plot especially seems like something taken straight from numerous Latin American soap operas, with multigenerational families, secrets from the past, and beautiful, cold women. I was close to DNFing this one despite the evocative, trademark Moreno-Garcia’s prose, because veritably all characters seemed to be ready-made by the same romance-churning machines: walking stereotypes engaged in predetermined actions. Charming, sure, but not even considering not toeing the line of romance conformity. And yet, I’m glad I persevered and finished this book, because even if it didn’t change my opinion of romances as a literary genre, I was still pleasantly surprised by the feminist twists on the age-old patterns.