“There are lots of stories about the children of gods. But what about those cursed by the gods, and their descendants…”
This line is catnip. This is story I definitely want to read. This is not quite the story Descendants tells.
The set-up: El has lived a safe, if sheltered life, raised with her grandparents in a country cottage. Her grandparents keep her away from others because El has a gift: she has powers of persuasion she cannot control. She works part-time as a docent at a local museum/cultural attraction as a small way of getting out in the world. Unfortunately, things go wrong during a tour and El almost kills a visitor with her power, exposing her to a shady organization, the Triad, which would do her harm.
The good: as far as Greek mythology-influenced young adult fiction goes, this is a creative take. Rae Else lays out a complex society of elementals. With two more books coming in the series, there is something for a reader to sink teeth into.
Ultimately, the book wasn’t for me for a number of reasons.
The world is complex, but it’s poorly sketched in a perfunctory exposition dump. There’s a list of different types of powers presented over a page or two, and then the story moves along. When the types come up later, I struggled to recall what was said previously–wait, why does that power work on arete (wait, what’s an arete?) but that other one doesn’t?–and almost wished the information had been better integrated in the text.
I fell for the cover blurb and thought I was getting a story about the descendants of those cursed by the Greek gods. Arachne’s great-great-great-great-grandchildren or something. Oops: arete pre-date ancient Greece. So they’re … not supernatural at all? Humans with a little extra. This might be fleshed out better as the series progresses, so put a pin in that criticism.
The story just doesn’t do the work. El harms the visitor in the opening scene, and rushes home to find that she’s being hunted. It’s been maybe 20 minutes to an hour since she left work, but her London-based mother is already in the living room. How? How does her mother know that El is on the Triad’s radar this early? What does it mean that they’re looking for her given that the incident just happened? Did a call go out? Are local teams deployed and about to bust through the windows? Logistics of the hunt aside, the threat of the Triad doesn’t feel real until half-way through the book, robbing the book of tension it sorely needs.
El moves from place to place but it never feels internally driven. Oh, El is in the hideout. Now she’s seeing a doctor. Now she’s in a park. Her primary means of transition from one location is leaving the first spot crying. El cries a lot, which brings me to my next criticism.
El is a teenage girl, which can cover a host of sins in YA writing. She spends a lot of time crying about being betrayed, even as she proves herself unable to make good choices. On one page, she regrets the consequences of not doing what she’s been asked to do. On the next, she’s not doing something else she’s been asked to do. Oh, honey. Learn a lesson.
I am officially too old for the requisite YA love triangle. I choose to believe it’s a subtle joke that El has been so sheltered, any attention from an attractive young man flusters her. I choose to believe it, but I’m not positive Else does.
Look, Descendants has the same magic as the Trylle trilogy, as well as a lot of the same flaws. Those books were absolutely not my speed, but they were enormously popular when they came out. I think Descendants could absolutely work for a similar audience. I don’t think I’ll be moving forward with this series.
I received an advance copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for feedback.