YA Review: Blanca & Roja

Title: Blanca & Roja
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore 

A modern-day retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, this book focuses on the relationship between sisters Blanca and Roja Del Cisne, and their attempts to break their family’s curse. Every generation of the family is destined to have two daughters, and one of them will always be taken as a teenager and turned into a swan. Other sisters have tried and failed to break the curse, but Blanca and Roja have devoted their lives to protecting each other.

The relationship between the sisters is the centre of the story. Blanca has blonde hair and paler skin, while Roja’s black/red hair and darker skin more closely represent their Latina heritage. They are equally different in temperament – Blanca is the older sister, obedient and helpful, while Roja is rebellious, with a fiery temper. Blanca follows her mother, learning to cook and keep the house, while Roja follows her father, reading books from his library and staying out of the kitchen. Blanca makes friends at school, and is accepted by the popular students, while Roja is an outcast.

The sisters have a plan. They decide to become so similar that the swans, when they come, will not be able to tell them apart. They reason that, if the swans cannot choose between them, maybe they can break the curse. Roja eats sweet berries, and ties a blonde ribbon in her hair, while Blanca eats bitter herbs and wears a red ribbon. Neither sister knows whether their plan will work, but they are determined to protect each other.

When a prophecy suggests that Blanca could protect herself if she wins the heart of a blue-eyed boy, the relationship between the sisters begins to fall apart. Blanca decides to use the information to protect Roja, but when she starts making decisions without consulting her sister, Roja assumes that Blanca has given up on her, and chosen to save herself. The sisters begin to work alone, trying to protect each other but without understanding each other’s motives.

I loved the relationship between Blanca and Roja, and the way they spent their lives trying to confuse the swans. I loved the way they cared for each other, and knew each other completely. When they stopped communicating, and stopped sharing their lives, I was shouting at the book.

The story is complicated by the arrival of a blue-eyed boy, and a non-binary character who is comfortable using both male and female pronouns. Both characters are trying to escape from the their families, and both find themselves drawn to the sisters as they wait for the swans. The romantic aspect of the story adds depth to the characters, but the focus is always on Blanca and Roja.

It’s an engaging story, told from four points of view in alternating chapters. Blanca, Roja, Barclay the blue-eyed boy, and non-binary Page provide different pespectives on the unfolding story as they each try to escape from the influence of their families. The sisters want to free themselves from the curse, while Barclay needs to hide from his violent cousin, and Page seeks to define his/herself away from the expectations of his/her parents. Their distinct personalities develop throughout the book, but the threat of the swans hangs over everything, and the focus is always on Blanca, Roja, and their fear of losing each other.

I enjoyed reading a book that put the relationship between sisters at the centre of the narrative. My frustration when their relationship started to fracture is a measure of my investment in their story, and while I enjoyed the interactions between the girls and their love interests, it was the sisters who kept me listening. It’s an interesting retelling, successfully combining the magical realism of the curse with the realities of modern life (a conversation about ice-cream flavours provided wonderful insights into two of the characters) while retaining the threat and the fear of the swans. Barclay’s abuse at the hands of his cousin, and Page’s search for an authentic identity, act as interesting parallels with the magical plot, anchoring the story with their real-life concerns.

I listened to the audiobook edition of Blanca and Roja. Initially, the use of four different narrators felt unnecessary, but as the plot progressed, and the characters became more developed, their individual voices added depth to the experience of listening to the story. There’s a haunting quality to the narration that keeps the magical side of the book in focus, even during real-world events. It’s a very effective technique, which succeeds in bringing a complex story to life.

Have you read Blanca & Roja? What did you think of the story? Did you enjoy the focus on the sisters and their relationship? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.

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YA Review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2)

Title: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2)
Author: Philip Pullman
Edition: Audiobook
Rating: 4/5

It’s been a while since I listened to the audiobook of La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1), and I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Secret Commonwealth. The ending of La Belle Sauvage tied in neatly with the beginning of Northern Lights, and The Secret Commonwealth picks up Lyra’s story after the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Lyra is twenty, and studying at Oxford. Separated from Pantalaimon after the events of His Dark Materials, she finds herself increasingly at odds with her daemon. When Pan disappears, Lyra sets out to find him. The book tells the story of her journey across Europe in the shadow of a developing conflict in the Middle East, and a power struggle at the heart of the Magisterium. Malcolm Polstead, now a professor at Oxford, sets out on a journey of his own to discover more about the conflict, and about the attacks on rose gardens and rose growers in the desert. Lyra’s journey brings her into contact with refugees from the rose-growing regions, while Malcolm searches for information on the causes of the fighting.

Where La Belle Sauvage was Malcolm’s story, The Secret Commonwealth is Lyra’s adventure. Travelling without a daemon alienates her from the people she meets, and she relies on word-of-mouth connections to find people to help her at every stage of her journey. It’s a long, dangerous journey, and Lyra’s determination, courage, and quick thinking keep her one step ahead of disaster. She’s still an engaging character – intelligent, thoughtful, and resourceful, and while a continuous progression of trains, boats, and places of refuge could be dull in the wrong hands, Pullman manages to keep the reader’s attention. As Lyra crosses Europe, she learns more about the relationships between people and their daemons, and about people who exploit that relationship in various ways. Each stage of her journey feels more dangerous than the last, and there are some edge-of-the-seat moments towards the end of the book as she grows closer to her goal.

As in the previous books, the author creates a believable alternative world where agents of the Magisterium are to be feared, unconventional relationships between humans and daemons are viewed with revulsion, and asking questions about Dust attracts attention from dangerous people. This is an intriguing instalment in Lyra’s story, and I’m looking forward to Volume Three.

I listened to the story as an audiobook, and I’m pleased to say that Michael Sheen continues to be a fantastic narrator. He provides distinct voices for a large cast of characters, conveys the tension between Lyra’s fear and her determination, and brings a sense of drama and danger to the story. I’ll be sticking to the audiobook for Volume Three.

Have you read The Secret Commonwealth? What did you think of Lyra’s story? And what about the people she meets as she travels? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.

Please keep your comments YA appropriate. Be patient! We want to hear from you, but comments are moderated, and may take some time to appear.