I first read this book back in 2019-ish, and I wanted to reread so I could finish Midnight Beauties.
Anouk is 17, and works as a maid in the house of France’s Diamond Witch, Mada Vittora. She’s a beastie, a person who was transformed by magic from an animal form. When her witch is murdered, Anouk and her friends Cricket and Beau have three days to find a way to preserve the spell keeping them human. Along the way, they pick up allies (Viggo, the witch’s boy, and Hunter Black, his beastie bodyguard; Tenpenny, the Goblin leader; and Mada Zola, the Lavender Witch, and her witch’s girl, Petra) who may help them when the Haute, the witch royals, come for the beasties.
I was still a teenager when I first read this book, which is probably why I chose to overlook some of the things that are glaringly bothersome to adult me.
For instance, take Viggo. He’s an asshole. We know he’s an asshole because he keeps ‘pawing’ at Cricket, despite her constantly telling him she’s not interested. We didn’t need the sprinkle of transphobia around Petra to get that yes, Viggo is an asshole. The ending of Grim Lovelies sets up the beginning of a redemption arc for him, but I don’t care if he drains himself dry for the beasties: he’s gross, and only shows signs of wanting to change after Anouk puts him under a horrible love spell. That’s like Christians doing good things because they fear hell and not because they’re good things: it’s largely performative. Viggo doesn’t stop being a transphobic creep because he was forced to “love” Anouk. I hope Cricket carves him a new one.
The whole plotline with the potion gave me the big ick. I know Anouk thought it was necessary, but what if - gasp! - you just talk to Viggo. I know he wanted Cricket, and she’s a bad actress, etc, but like…there had to be a better way around it. Anything. As a witch myself, I don’t believe in using love spells, except maybe the self-love ones. There’s a line that’s crossed in making one, where suddenly free will goes out the window. Like I said, big ick.
And the Petra thing. In this book, Anouk reflects on the fairytales Luc tells the beasties, and to explain Petra there’s a couple of pages about a prince wanting to be a princess. I mean…I guess? I’m not transgender, so it’s a topic I will defer to transgender people on, but it didn’t feel right coming from all the cisgender characters and a cisgender author. You could’ve just said Petra was trans and left it at that (like Jim in Our Flag Means Death, which if you haven’t seen it, stop reading and go watch it, it’s so good).
There was a lot that happened in 300ish pages, and I feel like Shepherd could’ve drawn the story out into more books, or more pages, and it would’ve made it all the better. Tenpenny is a super neat character, but I wasn’t sobbing over his death. If the book were split into two, then yeah, the audience could get to know Tenpenny and the Goblins a lot better than just the party in the catacombs, and maybe I would’ve shed a tear over him choosing to save Beau (which seemed a little out of character - nothing at this point suggests Tenpenny would sacrifice himself for a beastie - but I digress).
Speaking of death, even though I don’t think Hunter Black is dead, the bury your gays trope is infuriating. He’s the one gay representation in the book, and now he’s maybe dead? What the hell? Also his pining for Viggo makes me want to tear off my face.
Another thing that bothers me is Anouk and Beau’s relationship, and how many people want to kiss Anouk in this story. Rennar is centuries old, and yet he proposes to Anouk TWICE. Beau is her puppy-dog, quite literally, and is a total asshat when she kisses Viggo once - and not even romantically! He didn’t even let her explain, he just went and snogged a Goblin to get back at her. And she forgives him, all in the span of 15 pages. Why? Was that necessary? No. Anyway. Viggo is also in love with Anouk for a time, because of the spell. Why do I find this all grody? Because Anouk is 17, and all these men are so much older than she. It makes my skin crawl the same way that Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares grossed me out. You could make your characters however old you want, and you actively chose 17. :/
There were also some repeated phrases (pawing at Cricket, an awful premonition, a very specific conversation between Hunter Black and Anouk about Viggo and the love spell that happened twice), but they were so minor that they only bothered me in the moment.
Okay, so why did I rate this book 4 stars? Because I liked it, even with the problems.
Anouk is a very consistent character, and I haven’t gotten that from some of the things I’ve read recently. She has her motivations and her ways of thinking, and Shepherd keeps her to those. She’s a maid and a cook first, for the most part, and a leader second. She cares about her friends, and also understands that she was abused by the witch she begrudgingly loves still. She’s naive, but also she’s only been human for a year, so it’s understandable. Other characters may waver in their characterization, but Anouk stays the same.
I really love most of the side characters. Petra is the first trans character I ever read, and so she’s one that also stays with me. Tenpenny and Toblerone are fun lil guys, and I’ll miss them both. December has a neat name, but I get the feeling I’ll like her more in the sequel. Rennar is intriguing, and learning about the witches and the Haute second hand were interesting takes. It makes sense, in a story told from Anouk’s perspective. I liked the magic of the world, as limited as we know about it because again: Anouk’s perspective. I look forward to learning more.
Overall, I did enjoy the books. The things I didn’t like were fairly minor, comparatively, and largely just storytelling that I didn’t personally like (besides the transphobia point - do better). As fast-paced as everything was, it (mostly) made sense, what was happening, and I do wonder what the next book will bring.
Trigger warnings: alcohol, animal death, animal cruelty, blood, cursing (French, English), death, murder, physical abuse, sexual harassment, slavery, transphobia, violence, body horror, confinement, emotional abuse, genocide, grief, injury/injury detail