Book Review

Review: Monstrous Heart by Claire McKenna

I like a gothic novel. I’ve loved reading novels like Wakenhyrst, Melmoth and The Binding to name a few recent ones. I also love a classic gothic romance – mystery ex-wife, Jane Eyre/Rebecca vibes? Yes please. Fantasy magic systems based on blood? Sure. I just didn’t expect this book to try to do all of those things, whilst not managing to follow through on all of these ideas well.

Monstrous Heart

Title: Monstrous Heart
Author: Claire McKenna
Pages: 400
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: 2nd April 2020

“When Arden Beacon is sent to the lighthouse, she is simply a woman with a job to do. She neither seeks, nor expects, distraction. After years tainted by disappointment, Arden is finally taking up her family’s profession. She must prove herself worthy of her name, for she has nothing else.

But the coast she has been tasked with lighting is far from the world she knows – the salt-swept, backwater town of Vigil is battered by a sea teeming with colossal, ancient beasts. It is a place of secrets, rumours and tight-lipped expectations of a woman’s place.

More than anyone, the folk of Vigil whisper about Arden’s new neighbour, Jonah Riven, hunter of leviathans. He murdered his wife, they whisper – a perfect, golden girl, full of charm and potential. So very different to Arden Beacon.

They say he is as much a monster as his prey, but Arden cannot get this dark stranger out of her head.”

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 wat

Now, this was an oddly tricky one to read. The story was a little all over the place, and there were considerable inconsistencies in the way the characters were treated, not to mention sexual aggression used as a character trait. But what caused me the biggest issue when reading this was the sheer number of proofing errors. I expect a few in an ARC but at times it made it genuinely hard to tell what was the author’s writing style, and what was just poor editing … so, assuming that these will be edited and correct out in the final version, let’s focus on the story instead.

Arden has a weak version of a blood skill that allows her to light flames using her own blood, which is particularly useful for lighting lamps and managing lighthouses. There are a number of other blood skills – it’s not really explained how many there are, or how they are actually useful, but they seem to be something to be both feared and admired. And there’s a Eugenics Society dedicated to keeping the bloodlines pure.

And yet there seems to be early electricity in this world? Presumably making those with this fire blood skill increasingly useless? Why does this Eugenics Society allow this? And who is the Lion Order and what is their involvement? They seem to be pulling puppet strings that they don’t even know about?

The women in this world are all addressed as ‘Mx.’, suggesting some kind of non-binary form of address, yet the men are still called Mr or Master. And despite this non-binary, there is a very clear and derogatory attitude towards women. Although they can take on jobs, such as Harbourmistress, whore, stormbride and airship pilot, the protagonist is constantly pressed upon to take a suitable husband for her genetic line. And whilst Arden seems to have some sexual agency, as long as she doesn’t marry outside of her class or have children, her ‘stormbride’ has had her fallopian tubes removed?? AND THEN the main character is sexually assaulted a number of times, complains about this and it’s summarily dismissed. There is such a lack of consistency around sexuality and sexual attitudes …

I did like the context of the novel – great place names, interesting geography and excellent undersea creatures – kraken, pleisiosaur and the like – alongside a (confusing and not altogether clearly-explained) magic system. Yet Vigil seemed to be some kind of backward and filthy village, particularly in comparison to where Arden has come from.

There were excellent glimmers throughout the novel that made it worth persevering. The first meeting between Arden and Jonah in town, the time when she pulled herself out of the sea just wearing gold silk underwear (?!) – they were all well-written and the dialogue and pacing was good … but it seemed like some sections had been reworked and the rest had been fluffed through.

Also, a large portion of the plot revolved around Jonah and his relationship with his wife, Bellis. It initially seems as though he is a monster, sexually depraved and very likely to rape his new neighbour (Arden) in her sleep. (Always a turn-on for a woman …), or at least everyone Arden speaks to in Vigil says so. Then, once she realises that maybe Bellis wasn’t everything that she seemed, or that everything about Jonah wasn’t as the town of Vigil might think, then she found people who had always believed the best in Jonah.
Instead, it felt that the characters of Heathcliffe and Mr Rochester had all been smushed into Jonah to try and make him more attractive. Both intimidating and gentlemanly?

Unfortunately all the hot mess aspects of the book detracted from what has the potential to be a genuinely imaginative, gothic, broody and interesting novel. Reading Monstrous Heart was like walking through rooms in a house that has both been abandoned and beautifully restored. Some areas were plush and lively, others were confusing an bare. I really hope that all of these kinks are ironed out by the time it’s published …

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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