Belladonna by Adalyn Grace (Belladonna #1)
Publisher: Little Brown for Young Readers (The NOVL)
Release Date: August 30, 2022
Cover Illustrator: Elena Masci
[Received an ARC for review from the publisher]
Summary: Orphaned as a baby, nineteen-year-old Signa has been raised by a string of guardians, each more interested in her wealth than her well-being—and each has met an untimely end. Her remaining relatives are the elusive Hawthornes, an eccentric family living at Thorn Grove, an estate both glittering and gloomy. Its patriarch mourns his late wife through wild parties, while his son grapples for control of the family’s waning reputation and his daughter suffers from a mysterious illness. But when their mother’s restless spirit appears claiming she was poisoned, Signa realizes that the family she depends on could be in grave danger and enlists the help of a surly stable boy to hunt down the killer. However, Signa’s best chance of uncovering the murderer is an alliance with Death himself, a fascinating, dangerous shadow who has never been far from her side. Though he’s made her life a living hell, Death shows Signa that their growing connection may be more powerful—and more irresistible—than she ever dared imagine.
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3⁄4
My Thoughts: Belladonna has been pitched as a YA gothic fantasy romance which surely will find it’s audience, sadly I’m not part of it. Signa’s newest home leads her to form an alliance with Death to solve a murder mystery at the illustrious Thorn Grove. The plot explores deeper themes about grief, family, and self-discovery, though the prose isn’t as detailed and the story’s pacing does suffer, it’s perfect for mystery readers who enjoy gothic ambience!
I think going into this novel with rather high expectations (especially based on the Goodreads ratings) was likely my own fault. Readers will most likely go into this book assuming its more of a fantasy romance, yet it reads more-so as a mystery paranormal novel. There were definitely themes and ideas that Grace explored throughout Signa’s story that frankly I’m glad she took time to delve into because thematically, this novel was quite rich the further you progressed. I did enjoy the journey, but digging more into the bits & pieces, it was a bit disappointing.
Signa has been surrounded by death (both literally and through the mysterious figure whose come to know Signa as Death) ever since she was born, so as she grew up going from guardian to guardian, she never felt like she had a place to call her own (especially since her grandmother was the last caring relative to look after her). All her guardians have suffered from some untimely accident, until the day Signa finds herself yet again, moving to stay with distant relatives in Thorn Grove. However, she soon gets thrust into an investigation into her cousin Blythe’s illness, in addition to reopening the case of her distant aunt Lillian’s death. Suspecting a killer still on the loose, she teams up with Death to solve it before anyone else gets hurt.
The themes explored within the story as Signa tries to solve the mystery were probably my favorite part about this book. Grace, whether intentionally or not, examined grief (which hit close to home) in a very multilayered way and how it evolves, the impact our grieving can have in ways we don’t realize, but also how it can be overcome. One scene in particular that stood out to me was seeing the Hawthorne’s (especially Elijah, Percy’s banter with her, etc.) acknowledge Signa’s presence in helping them come to terms with their grief especially as she helped her cousin Blythe. In turn, the story deeply explored how Signa’s lack of a family was such a constant in her life until she arrived at Thorn Manor, it showcased her potential to build stable familial relationships and maybe look at the manor as a place that can start to feel like home.
Signa’s banter with Death, especially in the beginning, feels rather forced at times but I did like that the further she was closer with him, she saw him and her own abilities with a different perspective. Plot-wise because of how the novel was initially pitched I found it disappointing that the fantasy elements are pretty lacking at points where the story peppers in Signa’s connection to the belladonna plant and vague discussions about powers she seems to be able to unlock at a slow pace. Though her ability to communicate with not only ghosts, but Death personified made the paranormal-magic system interesting to dig into.
The plot also suffered from focusing more on Signa’s lessons and readying into society with more of a pivot to the historical, Victorian elements like society debuts, tea than keeping the story more engaged on the paranormal & mysterious side, which seemed to be the main plot here. However, again looking at it thematically, I did like how it gave Signa the chance to view how she wants to present herself in society and whether she could fit into the mundane day-to-day or the macabre side of her world with Death, I just wish it was done in a more entertaining way to keep the plot going (so random, but something that annoyed me was that Signa kept* referring to her mother’s Lady’s Guide To Beauty And Etiquette when the relationship is so vaguely explored, plus she never grew up in society anyways so why does she follow this book so much?)
Again, the prose…it felt like a very common style not only for YA fantasy but also through the overly used, recognizable gothic descriptors (like describing the manor as “brownstone”), there was never a moment where the prose wowed me too much. The vague setting descriptions did more to build mood than the actual world. I could also enjoy characters & understand them based on scene context, but outside of that they never felt too memorable to me. Though the characters I did enjoy were Sylas, the stable-boy and Blythe, her familial relationship with Signa was probably my favorite of this entire novel.
The writing felt quite plain for the most part and not once did a passage stick out to me where I thought “yes, this is Adalyn Grace’s style,” sadly I didn’t find that. Granted this is my first read from her and I’m aware of her Stars & Teeth duology, so perhaps I’ll dig into her debut to see if I can pick up on more of her writing voice there.
As for the magic system, I do like how the paranormal elements from Signa’s connection to spirits, ghosts and the afterlife we’re explored building as Signa gathered clues to solving the mystery. Do wish there were more details to build on it because the system wasn’t established too much in beginning but it grew on me, especially as Signa worked with Death.
Now for the romance…look it was fine?? I do think Signa and Death’s relationship (especially in the beginning) felt rather forced at times. Like once we meet them together on the first few pages, they already have this banter which read as convoluted from the start. However, the more page-time they spent together I did like the development of their relationship and how it offered Signa a glimpse into this other life she could potentially have. Death also gets more development as we see how being a ferry of souls has given him a different perspective compared to Signa. Overall though the actual romantic relationship felt so predictable and whatever complexity they had as characters felt watered down by the end as it was delved further. Though I will say there is a surprising element to Death as a character that I didn’t see coming!
Surprisingly, I felt this novel could have been good as a standalone and the ending does clearly set-up for the second book (Foxglove, slated for 2023). I’m interested to see more of Signa’s personal journey though with my gripes, I’ll wait and see what’s planned for the plot.
Belladonna is a gothic, Victorian-romance woven with underlying fantasy and paranormal elements that at it’s core delivers a murder-mystery full of turns! Exploring deeper themes within its pages lends itself well to Signa’s journey in choosing between the typical Victorian lifestyle or the magical connection she has with Death as she tries to solve a murder. Though flaws within the prose and plotting may not stand out to all, its an intriguing blend of gothic, mystery and self-discovery sure to entice those looking for a new romantic fantasy!