REVIEW: Ruinsong by Julia Ember

REVIEW: Ruinsong by Julia Ember (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; November, 2020), 368 pages.

This book falls into two categories I generally dislike (YA and fantasy), and yet I loved it. I may have written something similar in my last review of Ember’s books (of The Navigator’s Touch, back in 2018, here), but there are just some authors who do a genre beautifully, and whose writing doesn’t rely on the bells and whistles of the genre for its strength and effect (I, and many folks, feel this way about Octavia Butler, for instance). Ember is one of those authors for me. She can throw in a dragon (I hate dragons, to the point of it being a joke among my friends), and I’ll buy into it anyway.

There are no dragons in this book, but there is magic and high drama, and everything that usually makes me run away. But I was absolutely hooked from the first chapter.

Ruinsong is the story of a woman with special abilities who combines forces with her community—and another strong, smart woman—to overcome some evil and oppressive ruling forces and reset the culture to a new, more equitable government. Given the time period in the U.S., I couldn’t help but read it as a parable for our own contemporary situation. (‘Nuff said.) It is also the story of two women falling in love. And it is also the story of a woman struggling with her strength and abilities and how best to use them, ethically speaking.

In the world of the book, magic is achieved by singing; there are different kinds of mages here (ones who sing their effects onto plants, for instance, or those who can affect elements like water). The really dangerous ones are the “corporeal mages,” those who can create effects on the living body—heating parts of it to blistering, crushing bones, suffocating it and the like, but also healing it. The society is ruled by a queen—okay, I’ll say it: an evil queen—who has enslaved corporeal mages to help her keep the rest of the population under her control. Cadence is a corporeal singer forced to do terrible things to people in the name of the queen.

Remi is one of those done-to people, but she also turns out to be the one with whom Cadence forms a tight bond. Together, they mount a resistance to the queen, attempt to overthrow the government and take care of each other in the meantime.

The novel, as much as it builds a convincing, complete world of magic and castles (and it does), doesn’t rely on all that. Its true power is in the story of relationships between its characters and in the characterization of each one as believable, complete, compelling. The story itself is compelling, too—folks banding together to overcome seemingly-undefeatable oppressive forces.

I’ve read that the novel is a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera tale—Ember has done quite a bit to re-envision old tales through a feminist, queer lens (see, for instance, The Seafarer’s Kiss, a re-envisioning of “The Little Mermaid”). I’m not familiar with the original Phantom (neither LeRoux’s nor the Lon Chaney film nor Broadway’s), but this novel stands entirely on its own. I imagine that if one is familiar with The Phantom of the Opera, there is probably extra excitement in reading a feminist, queer, updated version of this tale, but one doesn’t need to know the original to really enjoy this one.

What I love here is the smart, unwavering ethics of this book, combined with the compelling story and perfect pacing Ember gives it. The world feels so complete and believable—there’s magic in it, yes, but there’s also dust and animal slobber on the dress sleeve, high drama mingling with mundane reality in a way that really works. It’s dark and bright, ugly-beautiful, and it pulls you in and keeps you there, so that after more than 350 pages, you’re still ready for more.

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