Sunday, 19 March 2017

Review: Spirtbound by Dani Kristoff

2 stars

Originally, I was intrigued by Spiritbound's premise of a Sydney coven of "folk" where young witches greatly outnumber warlocks. The basic plot had promise, but the writing and characterisation wasn't what I was hoping for.

As young children, Grace and Declan were inseparable, but that all ended when Grace accidentally raised her cousin's dead cat. Declan and his horrified parents moved overseas, while Grace became a pariah. Years later, Declan's back, and the shortage of available warlocks means that every young witch in Sydney has her eye on him, except for Grace. For her, Declan's presence is associated with the worst time in her life, and she knows that her marginal position within the coven means that she should stay well away from the new Golden Boy, even if he's showing interest in getting to know her again.

Much of the plot concerns Grace's ostracism and the prejudice against her, as well as the disparate gender ratio in the coven. I thought that both of these plot points were ripe for nuanced explorations, but both are superficial (while the latter is also somewhat problematic). Partly, I think that this can be traced back to the simplistic writing style, which tends towards telling and not showing: 
Of course it hurt being snubbed, but Grace had built up a tolerance for it. Still, having Declan notice and calling attention to it filled her with shame. It was as if the whole room was pointing at her, vilifying her, instead of just tolerating her. Forcing Rose to acknowledge her presence made Grace confront the ostracism head-on, something she had not done for years. (8%)
The gender disparity in the coven - which I had hoped would be all women-power - was pretty much the opposite. Grace continually calls the women who shun her, and/or who are making a play for Declan, "bitch-witches". The one or two of these women whose characters are developed in depth are shown to be cruel, immoral and sexually promiscious (in a slut-shaming way), while Grace is a virginal turn-the-other-cheek kind of gal. 

There were also other gendered behaviours that made me feel very uneasy. Firstly, when Declan and Grace are reintroduced, she is upset by the association between him and the necromancy incident, since he was the one to report her misuse of magic as a child. She is quite clearly distressed, and tells Declan to leave her alone, but he keeps talking, criticising her reaction and demanding a second chance. "Demand" is actually the word that he uses, and later in the book, they laugh about it, but I find it hard to see the humour in the way men think that they are owed women's time and emotional labour, regardless of circumstance. A few chapters later, Declan grabs Grace and kisses her - without her consent - in the school where they both work, in front of the students. Somehow, at this point, I still was wiling to accept that maybe this was just a old-school romance-influenced novel, even though it was published in 2015, but the last straw was a horrible scene in which Grace is gaslighted by Declan and her own mother, who paint her reaction as hysterical when it is really quite reasonable and proportionate to the situation. 

I feel like maybe the reader was meant to overlook all this stuff because Grace's mother has a sex-positive attitude, which she has passed on to Grace, but the scales absolutely do not balance. This may be fiction, but fiction reflects and impacts our real world, and these are things that women - particularly women of colour and women who are marginalised along other axes - struggle with enough in everyday life, and having it legitimised and reflected it back to us in supposedly female-oriented literature only makes it worse. 

Moving back to the story at large, I also had some problems with the romantic conflict. It's not that it's lacking, precisely, but one obstacle was exchanged for another late in the piece, which meant that there wasn't much build-up. Like the first, the second conflict was also dispensed with fairly quickly, thanks to a deus-ex-machina moment, leaving me feeling slighty unfulfilled, even though I thought I'd stopped backing the romance after the workplace-sexual-assualt and gaslighting incidents.

Ultimately, my experience of Spiritbound was defined by the diactic writing style and disturbing gender dynamics. I can chalk the first one up to personal preference, but find I'm unable and unwilling to do that in the case of the second. Make of that what you will. 

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