Title: A Monstrous Heart
Author: Claire McKenna
Genre: Fantasy, gothic
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Published: 23rd March 2020
Synopsis: A sensational debut novel perfect for fans of Outlander and The Binding. This is gothic, epic, romantic fantasy at it’s very best; a tale of magic, intrigue on dangerous waters and a love story for the ages.
Arden Beacon arrives in the salt-swept port of Vigil with a job to do. Tasked with using the magic in her blood to keep the lighthouse burning, she needs to prove herself worthy of her family name and her ancestors’ profession.
But the coastline Arden must keep alight – battered by a sea teeming with colossal, ancient beasts – is far from the cultured, urban world she knows. It is a place of secrets, rumours and tight-lipped expectations of a woman’s place. More than anyone, the town folk whisper about Arden’s neighbour, Jonah Riven, the hunter of leviathans. They say he murdered his wife. They say he is as much a monster as his prey.
Amidst all her determination and homesickness Arden cannot get this shadowy stranger out of her head. A plot swirls around the lighthouse keeper, the hunter and the authorities. Arden must make sense of these dark waters – before they wash her away.
Arden’s life in Vigil must revolve around the lighthouse. To keep it running, she must use the magic in her blood – an ancestral profession she is destined for. Yet she is new to this world of strange sea creatures, or what people think she should be doing as a woman, and the role of strangers and the reactions top those around Vigil. It is filled with secrets and whispers, and the mysteries that surrounds the setting and characters trudges along, and builds very slowly, pulling threads of the plot together n ways that don’t always seem connected.
When Arden hears whispers about her neighbour, leviathan hunter Jonah Riven, I thought maybe there would be a strong strand of mystery here that would drive the story further, yet it felt like it could have had more about this – and this would have made it stronger, as it had the potential to be a key point and something that drove Arden in her quest to find things out.
It took me a lot longer to read this one than I usually do for books – perhaps because I felt like I had to concentrate harder, because there were some things that should have been made more obvious or should have led into some key aspects that could have been given more attention, or dealt with in a way that didn’t expect too much of the reader to fill in the blanks.
It has an ethereal, almost weightless feel that definitely works for the story and the way it has been told. Whilst this might work for some readers, I found it didn’t for me – it was a little hard to follow at times, and there were points when I wondered who people were and felt like some things needed to be cemented a little bit more, if only to give the more mystical, ethereal and magical aspects more oomph and impact when they came into the story.
The story had great promise – gothic themes, fantasy themes, sea monsters – often, these are things that can be done well, and in many ways that deliver a sense of mystique whilst also having a strong sense of place, world building and character. For me, there were times when I felt like these were missing at times, or where a little more could have been done. As a reader, there are times when I don’t mind working for my reading, when I don’t mind spending time working things out – but I feel like sometimes this expectation of the reader is taken too far. Much of the world building is left to the imagination – and sometimes this works, but for it to work, there needs to be something that the reader can anchor the imagined aspects they bring to the story to as well.
Whilst there are things that felt really nice and worked well for this book, there were things that didn’t work as well – things that were just missing for the reader to grasp and hang onto. I found it was a book that I had to really concentrate on. Much more than other books, I found. It was one that feels a bit niche, and one that I think maybe I might not be the right audience for. Not everything needs to be made obvious for the reader, but I did wish a bit more had been a little more concrete. The only way this style might make sense is if it is part of a series and there is more to be explained in coming books.