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Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair

Robin Talley's Macbeth retelling, As I Descended, subverts Shakespearean norms.

Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair

BOOK REPORT for As I Descended by Robin Talley

Cover Story: Big Face: Forest Edition
BFF Charm: Nay
Swoonworthy Scale: 4
Talky Talk: Something Wicked
Bonus Factors: Shakespearan Retelling, Boarding School, LGBTQ
Anti-Bonus Factor: Major Plot Hole
Relationship Status: What’s Done Is Done

Cover Story: Big Face: Forest Edition

I’m neutral on the cover—I love the Spanish moss filling the silhouette, and how that evokes a certain kind of eerie Southern charm, but I don’t think this necessarily screams “ghost story” or “Shakespeare,” both important facts of the story. On the other hand, it doesn’t scream “generic YA,” either.

The Deal:

Maria and Lily are in love, and all they want to do is graduate from their prestigious private high school and attend Stanford together. There’s only a few small problems with that vision of the future: neither of them are out, fearing campus-wide ridicule and social annihilation, and they can’t guarantee they’ll both get into Stanford for four more years of roomie/girlfriend bliss.

Except—and there’s always an “except”—if Maria wins the Kingsley prize, an exclusive scholarship, it pretty much guarantees her acceptance into the college of her choosing. The catch, of course, is that the campus queen bee Delilah is not only scathing, but smart. She hardly puts forth any effort, and yet she’s got hard-working Maria beat by mere hundredths of a point.

Lily and Maria aren’t going to let that stop them, though. They’ll do absolutely anything to unseat Delilah—and it all starts with one spooky night, with a Ouija board, and unleashing forces they cannot control. The dark power that hangs heavy over their former-Southern-plantation school has been let loose, and they might get everything they ever dreamed of…while leaving a trail of utter destruction in their wake.

Robin Talley has taken on the impressive task of adapting Macbeth for a YA audience.

BFF Charm: Hell No

Aside from a glaring plot hole (we’ll get to that in a bit), no, there is no way in hell I would be friends with either of these two girls. In the beginning, they’re sympathetic—Lily is disabled and in excruciating pain all the time, Maria is the adopted Latina daughter of a distant and cool white senator, and neither are comfortable being out in their small, exclusive Southern private school. That doesn’t sound like any fun—but when you find out the lengths these girls will go to in order to get what they want, I think you’ll join me in running far, far away.

Swoonworthy Scale: 4

In the beginning, Lily and Maria’s relationship holds some hot-and-heavy, albeit desperate moments—but that quickly gives way to blind ambition.

Talky Talk: Something Wicked

Robin Talley excels at describing the slow and creeping horror of getting exactly what you bargained for. Her descriptions of the eerie Southern plantation home-turned-private-school are haunting—pun fully intended!—and the descent into madness is a delicious one. It’s a book that deserves to be read in your most atmospheric reading nook, preferably with rain pelting the windows and wind howling.

By the time most of the destruction has happened, though, the pacing suffers—the end comes rather quickly, and to me, at least, it was unsatisfying. Without spoilers, of course, it diverges a bit from Macbeth, and in doing so loses some of its impact.

Bonus Factor: Shakespearan Retelling

Macbeth is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, which started my early obsession with angry and ambitious women who Get Shit Done, so reading this YA version was a delight. I know I just said the end didn’t satisfy—but when the rest of the book is well done, I still count it as a win.

Bonus Factor: Boarding School

YES, another boarding school book, this time with the eeriness of a hideous Southern plantation legacy. Give me all of your creepy boarding school books, please! Also, there’s just something about Spanish moss that makes everything seem haunted.

Bonus Factor: LGBTQ

I love that Robin Talley chose to make this a Very Gay Macbeth—two ladies Macbeth! A Gay-Straight Alliance in a tiny Southern school that is only tolerated because the queen bee gave her stamp of approval! If you’re going to retell Shakespeare for a modern audience, you had better subvert those character norms, and Talley did this wonderfully.

On the other hand, Shakespeare is never mentioned, which amuses me: these super-smart kids don’t happen to see any parallels between what’s happening at school and a certain famous play? Hmmm.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Major Plot Hole

Here’s my major problem with the book: the lack of motivation. More specifically, we’re supposed to believe that Maria is desperate to get into Stanford—so desperate that she and Lily will stop at nothing. Wait, what? The rich daughter of a senator who has perfect grades at an exclusive school, and is the co-captain of the championship-bound soccer team…thinks…she might not get into Stanford without this scholarship? Really? Out, out, damn inconsistency.

Casting Call:

Bianca Santos as Maria

Young Emilie de Ravin as Lily

Relationship Status: What’s Done Is Done

Book, I was into even before I realized you were a Shakespearean retelling, and your eerie atmosphere was everything I could have wanted in an autumnal read. Sure, our date hit some rocky points, and I’m not really feeling your reasoning, but overall, I thought we had a good—or delightfully bad—time.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a free review copy from Harper Teen. I received neither money nor a pet unicorn for writing this review, despite how hard I wished for one. As I Descended is available now.

Jennie's photo About the Author: Jennie Kendrick lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness of historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. When she's not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, runs an Etsy shop, and thrifts for vintage everything.