REVIEW: Monstrous Heart – Claire McKenna

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Author: Claire McKenna (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: HarperCollins

Genre: Fantasy

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.

A few years back, my husband got into sailing. He’d left it until we had moved to the very centre of the country, three hours in any direction to the sea, but I encouraged him because I thought he could go sailing with his dad, and I could have weekends to myself. Instead I found myself on an awful lot of boats, often cold and wet, and, on one memorable occasion, acting as ‘ballast’ on a tiny dinghy in the middle of a reservoir.

Which is to say, that when I read this book I was able to picture the entire atmosphere very easily. Cold, soaked in salt-water, and perhaps a little too close to being in the sea for my liking.

The first thing I want to say about this book is that there are trigger warnings – the nature of the magic in this word is that it is powered by blood, and that means self-harm is not only heavily involved in the plot but also almost revered within the society. I thought the premise was fascinating and really well executed, but I am aware that this constant reference to self-harm could be difficult to handle.

The world in which this is set is interesting – Arden has left the warm climes of the north (similar, I get the impression, to the Mediterranean) to go south to the bleaker port there, taking a post of a lighthouse keeper. Her blood has the power to create light, cold flame which burns without fuel and protects the coast. She doesn’t want to be in Vigil, but despite coming from a long line of lighthouse keepers, her blood is weak. This is her only opportunity to qualify as a full lightmistress, but it means she has to handle the backward attitudes of the Vigil locals. These are hardened fishermen who resent the use of magic to fill jobs, they see it as taking their employment – one sanguis can do the job of any number of men.

Add to that the mysterious rumours of her neighbour, Mr Riven, whose past seems to get darker with every story she hears, Arden is counting down the days to her return to the capital and her qualification. Not least because the local official keeps pestering her in the hopes she’ll finally sleep with him, and the way the wind and the sea roar around Vigil is not entirely comfortable. Lurking behind it all is the sinister machinations of the Eugenics Society, the organisation which controls who can marry who, and ensures that the bloodlines of people with sanguis talents are protected and kept strong.

There was something wonderfully atmospheric about this book. I was strangely nervous starting it, I’d just blitzed through a couple of easy-readers to make myself feel better, and this seemed wonderful but I worried it might be a bit too high-brow for my brain to cope with right now. Instead I got a beautifully woven story with magic, intrigue, and romance. It’s wonderfully and evocatively described, and, as I mentioned above, I could really feel myself there in many parts of it – even though none of the parts were particularly comfortable places to be! The world is quite magical, with plesiosaurs and kraken roaming the sea as naturally as dolphins and jellyfish.

Given the nature of the story, the impression I get is that most of the magical changes are maritime based, however there are references to airships too, and sky pirates. I get the impression this is the first in a series, and maybe we will see more of the world and how the magic is expressed inland, but somehow I think that further books will remain very tied to the sea.

I loved Arden as a character, she’s very strong-willed and pragmatically minded, while being honest and principled. While she looks after her own interests, she’s not willing to be led by other people or compromise her own values. It made her a comfortable heroine to follow in a book that was otherwise quite dark and could be fairly intense. The antagonists cover a wide range, but they are the sort of antagonists that you love to hate. They’re so thoroughly loathsome that there’s something comforting in being able to despise them unequivocally. There’s plenty of moral greys in the story, but sometimes you do just need a character you want to see get their comeuppance as a bit of relieve from questioning right and wrong.

I have no idea if this is the first in a series, or if this is a standalone. Either way it was a book that almost tasted like the sea, and I felt doused in it. There were perhaps a few moments where the love story popped up and I felt “is this really the time?”, but the chemistry between them was great and it was handled well.

I look forward to seeing more from this series and this author!

Briefly:

  • A maritime fantasy with sea monsters and magic steeped in blood. It’s nautical steampunk, with mystery and romance, and a full spectrum of morality.
  • The magic is based around blood so it’s not a story for the squeamish, or anyone who has issues around self-harm.
  • I thought Arden was a wonderful character. She’s always strong and solid, very much a metaphorical lighthouse with a clear sight of where she wants to go, but she still gets development and growth, and it’s handled beautifully as she uncovers more about the world around her.

Rating: 5/5 – it was such an evocative book, it’s difficult to describe how much I felt like I was back on that bloody freezing boat in Portsmouth, getting soaked and ready to sacrifice someone to Neptune for dry land.

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: Monstrous Heart – Claire McKenna

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