Monstrous Heart by Claire McKenna

April 2020 was a bit of a rough time. Australia reeled from devastating bushfires straight into pandemic. Understandably, many books released around then missed my radar entirely. One of those was Monstrous Heart. Fortunately, the recent release of the sequel caught my attention and drew me into this deliciously Gothic series.

Arden Beacon comes from a long line of Sanguis Ignis, magic users whose blood can spark flame. The Beacons have a proud tradition as flame keepers, manning lighthouses all across the country. Arden’s talent is weak and she can aspire only to the smallest of posts. So, when the Eugenics Society offer her a short-term job at a lighthouse of her own in the fishing village of Vigil and afterward the chance to marry the man of her dreams, the offer seems too good to be true.

Arden’s only neighbour on the isolated promontory is Jonah Riven, a rough character rumoured to be half sea-monster and to have murdered his wife, Bellis. Arden finds herself strangely drawn to Bellis’s story and the man at the heart of it.

This book really embraces its Gothic elements in a number of ways. Riven most obviously stands in for the very shady love interest with the absent wife. More often than not, his shirt is in shreds or done away with entirely. Then we have Lord Justinian as the socially acceptable, but morally repugnant suitor. He lives in a literal crumbling manor house overlooking the sea, and Arden is forced to stay under his roof for a time until he eventually signs off on her suitability as Vigil’s flame keeper.

Vigil itself is a salt-encrusted fishing village where most of the people are poor and uneducated. It’s not quite the sort of place where everyone is distrustful of outsiders, though there are elements of that. However, Monstrous Heart is the sort of story where those with good intentions have them manipulated by less scrupulous characters. No good deed goes unpunished.

Because it embraces these Gothic elements, the story features a number of episodes of sudden violence. It’s a dark tale that should carry trigger warnings including but not limited to sexual assault, assault, drowning, eugenics and blood letting.

Indeed, eugenics and blood letting are major components of the world building. Magic is carried in the blood and activated through blood letting. The Eugenics Society keeps a record of all the blood lines and their abilities, conducting annual tests to scoop up anyone they might have overlooked. They have a keen interest in making sure these powers are maintained; weak though her ability is, Arden is not free to marry whomever she likes, but must gain permission from the society.

Despite the presence of a Eugenics Society, queer characters are not treated poorly by the world or the story, which was delightful to see.

Other elements of the world building sat oddly. There were strange traces of our world, mentions of the familiar twisted out of all familiarity. For example, one meal featured passenger pigeon pie and roasted dodo. It added to the sense of disquiet story builds. Given krakens play a major part of the story, I suspect a Lovecraft reference that I’m not well-versed enough to grasp. However, I hope that the connections will grow a little more clear as the series progresses and we see more of the world.

I found the style of writing a bit clunky in the beginning and the first third of the book is perhaps a touch slow. But it smooths out as things progress and the plot threw me some curve balls I definitely wasn’t expecting.

While it is a dark story, I didn’t find it depressing. I think this is in part due to an awareness of the Gothic tropes being played with, but also due to the human decency of the characters. While there are times they are undeniably selfish, these are balanced out by times when they are trying to help others. The characters all have other people they care about. These positive moments bring hope to the story, even as they serve to highlight the bleakness.

So, if sea monsters and Gothic love stories are your jam, I highly recommend checking out Monstrous Heart. I, for one, am glad the next book is already out.

Published: April 2020 by Harper Voyager
Format reviewed: E-book (epub), 400 pages
Series: The Monstrous Heart Trilogy
Genres: Fantasy
Source: Kobo
Available: Abbey’s ~ Amazon (AU, CA, UK, US) ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia ~ Dymocks ~ Indiebound ~ Kobo

2 thoughts on “Monstrous Heart by Claire McKenna”

  1. Okay, this sounds fun! I’ve been finding that I’ve grown more picky about my YA fantasy series, which I suspect is because there’s been such a glut over the past few years, but I want to give this one a try!

    1. This is definitely not a YA series, although it has a little bit of that angst. But mostly I think it suffers from the stigma that attaches to any fantasy novel written by a woman.

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