Novel: Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore | Goodreads
Release Date: October 9, 2018
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
The biggest lie of all is the story you think you already know.
The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.
But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.
Blanca & Roja feels like every other Anna Marie McLemore book, which can be both a good and a bad thing (just because of familiarity.) She has clear consistency in her voice, building characters with old-fashioned habits and Spanish family curses. Additionally, McLemore’s own interest in LGBTQ+ issues and identities allows her to seamlessly imbed these conversations into lovely fantastical narratives. I love the liminality of her magical realism paired with these explorations.
Blanca and Roja settle into their roles with limited fanfare. One as wicked and the other as good. I would prefer the two girls to be slightly more distinguishable, so that there would be more conflict or sense of urgency. Still, the language goes down smoothly.
Anna-Marie McLemore has this way of world-building in which odd habits and images make so much sense in the characters’ lifestyle. Even more conventional bits, like taste-testing apples, feel right and contribute to the sense of old-fashioned living or timelessness that the book carries around.
The only problem with Blanca & Roja as a book is that the middle absolutely drags — which isn’t a problem I experienced with any of her other books. The detailed language gets repetitive after awhile. And structurally, although each of the characters are important, I didn’t end up seeing the necessity of having four changes in perspectives. It made the short chapters abrupt and made it hard to keep track of what was going on, or see any urgency. I think the book would have been even better if it had been condensed more.
The most compelling plot point for me was that of Yearling’s (Barclay’s) family history. His family was wrapped up in a nefarious scheme of sorts, and it was first mentioned only partway through the book. If that had been introduced earlier, I think I would have been a lot more inclined to keep reading, rather than to put the book down for a few weeks. I also wish that that tension had been roiled up a little more.
Still, I enjoyed Blanca & Roja for many of its literary qualities. The striking parallelism between sibling dynamics, the expression of history and newness. Liam vs. Yearling. Blanca vs. Roja. Constant references to fairytales, and self-fulfilling prophecies.
I also admire Anna-Marie McLemore’s keen sense of human observation. In one scene, a character remarks that another is so rich that his mother leaves coats at parties and doesn’t bother going back for them. Yes! That is such a great detail to include — we get the sense for how they are. That also carries into her nonverbal communications, her writing of body language between characters.
One issue I had with the plot itself is that many of the connections that characters made felt like a reach, excused by family history/know-how that was never quite introduced. X would happen, so they’d be like “Oh, that means I must do this completely unrelated task in order to clear this up, because that’s what the swans want.” But that task had never been relevant, and felt like a random combination of details? That aspect of the book made it hard to follow the natural flow of the plot because the connections didn’t feel real.
I loved the romances nestled in the book, how they were simple in the sense that they were deep and pure, but that each character had a breadth of emotion. There were some scenes and dialogues that were executed beautifully in that regard.
My favorite character was Roja. She was fierce, yes, and constantly believed in herself as the harsh one because that was the role into which she was painted. Blanca could be a little more conniving than I liked, and I was so angry for Roja throughout the book as people constantly belittled her in favor of her sister. Yearling was likable, and I loved his woodsy air. Page was just kind of there, but served as an interesting complication to the story with Blanca. (Again, I felt like there were some characters that could have had their perspectives axed, and Page was one of them.)
The ending was well-done. When they actually encounter the swans, it’s a beautifully written metamorphosis scene with a good amount of action and tension throughout. THAT was the highlight of the book. Afterwards, things that happened felt like they could have been cleaner, and more condensed.
All in all, I did love it. It took me a while to get through, but the language was BREATHTAKING. The interactions between characters were smart and deeply human. She writes gorgeous stories with deeper meanings and discussions shrouded in lovely imagery and observational prose. The fairy tales spice up the story nicely, and it’s absorbing in all the scenes it needs to be. If you need your story to be a little more immediate, it may not be quite your taste, but I’d encourage you to try it out anyways.