Book Review: Where Dreams Descend

Where Dreams Descend (Kingdom of Cards #1)
by Janella Angeles
YA Fantasy
464 pages
Expected publication: August 25, 2020, by Wednesday Books

In the icy city of Glorian, a daring group of stage magicians compete to win a spot as the headliner for the Conquering Circus. But the longer the competition goes on, the more higher the stakes are, as one by one the competitors begin to disappear. In all of this, young Kallia, a flashy and strong-willed young magician must conquer both her own past and the judges’ misogyny, while the brooding Judge Demarco must overcome his own past pain to solve the mystery of the disappearances– and the riddle of Kallia’s past before both of them disappear in a flash of light and mirrors.

“Anticipation crackled beneath her skin at the sight of the shadowed attendees flooding the rows of the show hall. Goose bumps traveled across her flesh, but she quelled her shiver. She relished the pinch of fear as it sparked every nerve, shooting adrenaline into her body and a clarity emptying her mind of all thought, all worry.”

Though it’s been thirty-four years since The Phantom of the Opera premiered in London’s West End, and nineteen years since Baz Luhrman’s film Moulin Rouge! came out, both shows have gone on to have more than a little influence over certain areas of popular culture, with many creators attempting to recapture the allure of the mysterious phantom mentor, or the glitz and glamour of the Parisian night club. In her debut YA fantasy novel, Janella Angeles seeks to capture the mystery and magic her inspirations, but largely misses the mark, relying on YA clichés to do the heavy lifting in the narrative and building a world that wants to be grandiose and rich, but ends up feeling only as deep as the theater sets Angeles was inspired by.

The heroine, Kallia, is yet another in a long list of Strong Female Heroines who leads with her snark and a devil-may-care attitude, hiding her mysterious past with a smile or a snide remark to anyone who looks at her wrong. The brooding boy on the other side of the story, Daron Demarco, also has a mysterious past, though he hides his problems with glares and by spending hours at a time ruminating over his past mistakes and losses. If these ruminations happened only once or twice, they wouldn’t weigh the story down as much as they do, but it feels as though Demarco does little but brood, except for the times he shows concern for Kallia– who consistently responds by making snide remarks.

Angeles’s writing roots in the fanfiction world are on display throughout. While fanfic has grown up in the past decade and many authors either started out writing on such platforms as Archive of Our Own or, in many cases, still write fanfic, there is a particular prose style that afflicts much fanfiction: overwriting. No one simply smiles. Their lips turn up at the corners in an expression that doesn’t reach their eyes, which brim with mystery and a hint of malice. This purple prose is often mistaken for lyricism, but it hinders more than it helps, causing the story to stagger under its own weight. A cleaner prose style would emphasize the story’s stronger elements. Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! may be a bright and busy film, but a closer look reveals that its story and visuals are surprisingly tight and efficient. The same is true for the state production of The Phantom of the Opera. Perhaps in the second Kingdom of Cards book, Angeles will take that closer look at her muses and take a cue from the efficiency of the storytelling of her inspirations.

Where Dreams Descend is a story that wants to be so much. It wants glitter and glamor and all the drama of the stage, but while it seeks to build a kingdom of cards, its endless brooding and overwrought prose make of it a house of cards that’s only just strong enough to avoid collapsing in on itself.

Thank you to NetGalley and Wednesday Books for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Where Dreams Descend

  1. Exceptional review! You concisely and effectively help identify what doesn’t work for you while not slandering the book itself. Very well done.

    I will admit, I read the description and immediately thought: “I must read this book!” Alas. It seems like that might not be the case. Despite the tropes and failed attempt at purple prose, are the plot or characters worth knowing? Is there anything in here that might tempt you to read the next book?

  2. Thanks!

    The description was definitely interesting– especially when I first started hearing buzz about it back in February or so. I’ve been a fan of the musical Phantom of the Opera since I was, oh, about 8 or so.

    The main trope that annoys me is the snarky heroine who is naturally good at everything. There’s no room for her to grow, so why bother? And in the main male character, I see the shades of by Byronic hero, but he broods soooo much…. Annoying. I found very little to like about Kallia, so I basically have no interest in finding out what happens in the next book. The purple prose actually annoyed me less in this book than in other books I’ve seen it in, mostly because it cools down a little as the book progresses. And I’m a wee bit more forgiving of it given that A) Angeles’s background is in fanfic, and fanfic is notorious for its purple prose and B) it’s her debut, and was already taming it by about the 3/4 mark. So if Angeles continues writing past this duology, I’m willing to give something else of hers a shot.

  3. Interesting that the prose started to become more tame as the book went on. You think a good editor would have noticed that. I often wonder what makes a publisher decide on one book over another and how much they rely on the editors to improve it before release…

    I love that you’re embracing Angeles’s background in fanfic. You’re right, we need to acknolwedge where she came from and give her the room to grow. Context is everything!

  4. In my own experience, I’ll focus more on the first part of a story than on the ending (sadly, if I get totally tired of what I”m working on, the ending suffers. None of my readers have ever commented on it, so I guess they haven’t noticed?). I kind of wonder if editors– especially when working with new authors in the YA field– are the same way. After all, it’s the first part of the book that’s going to hook readers, and they may not notice a gradual shift in the writing unless they’re looking for it. And I can’t see most young people taking a slightly shifting prose style into consideration.

    Context is helpful! As much bad writing has come out of fanfic, there’s been some superb work in it, too. And writers like N.K. Jemisin freely admit that they still write fanfic, even though they’re published (and award-winning) authors.

  5. Interesting. I feel like that’s an editor’s JOB though, right? To help with consistency and making a book better fit the intended market? I will admit, I might be completely talking out of my butt. XD I have no idea what a real, paid literature editor does. Newspaper and media? Yup. But I don’t know much about book publishing…

    What I love about fanfiction is that it’s the perfect place to learn to write. Someone else has done the majority of the world building and provided you a cast of characters. You’re given a great place to start making amazing stories. The real skill comes in recreating these characters and their world in a way that deeply connects to other fans. Sure, you can make changes to the world and create new characters, but that’s not why people want to read fanfics. They want this universe to continue! It’s so neat.

    It’s also where I learned writing just isn’t something for me. XD

  6. It’s a matter of editor’s taste? Maybe the editor’s department is underfunded or understaffed? I don’t know. There are plenty of books– especially YA fantasies– that are horredously overwritten, and a lot of people think it’s wonderful stuff, so… *shrugs* I guess it’s all down to personal taste.

    Exactly! You don’t have to do a lot of worldbuilding with fanfiction, unless you’re setting up a drastically different AU, in which case the character work is already done, and you can change the world however works best for your story. It’s interesting- I’ve looked back at some of the earlier stories in my series to double check some details, and it’s amazing how much the characters in my AU have changed from those first couple of stories, but they’re still recognizable as the characters from the source material. Except for the original characters. Those are all mine…

  7. Pingback: State of the ARC: August 2020 | Traveling in Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s