Rating: 4/5 stars
Clean rating: PG(ish), I guess maybe a bit more for violence—but it’s not gore and it’s totally appropriate to the story.
Short summary: Cousins Dacia (wild, flirtatious, big personality) and Lou (much quieter) are socialites in 1897 New York. They are on their way, separately, to Romania for the first time, to meet their extended family, the formidable Florescus. But, you know, Romania—watch out for vampires and gypsies and such. The Florescus just happen to be longstanding friends with the mysterious descendants of Vlad the Impaler (AKA Dracula), and it appears that Dacia and Lou are part of some nefarious plans, whether they like it or not.
Recommend it?: (Mild spoiler alert, concerning the topic of vampires.) Do you enjoy magic, paranormal beings, the idea of an old Romanian setting? Did you like George’s princess novels (Princess of the Midnight Ball, etc.)? Do you think Dracula-related lore is interesting, especially when it’s not the same-old neck biting? (Spoiler here: You don’t have to like vampires at all; there is no vampire action. Which is actually a great relief to some of us—like the ones who wanted to slap silly every single character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) Then you should read it.
My 7yo daughter has recently been reading (and loving) some other Jessica Day George (Tuesdays at the Castle, which we’re listening to together, and Dragon Flight), as well as Gail Carson Levine (Stolen Magic) and Shannon Hale (Princess Academy novels), so I had to give some thought to whether I would let her read this one as well. Content-wise, I don’t have any problem with it. There is some scary stuff, and there is some blood and violence, but that’s not what stops me from recommending it to her. I don’t think I will just yet largely because thematically it’s a bit above her head. There’s romantic tension that she just doesn’t care about (yes, some of the others she’s read recently also contain romance, but not quite so integrally). There’s also family tensions and difficulties that I don’t think really get. So it’s not a matter of not letting her, it’s just that I don’t think it will draw her in yet. I’ll suggest it a few years down the road.
What I liked:
Format. The story alternates between Dacia and Lou’s perspectives, as well as including letters, journal entries, and a couple of telegrams and notes. I think this format works wonderfully for this type of story. Reading a letter from Dacia to Lou, knowing Lou wouldn’t get it until it was too late, heightened the tension and the frustration for the characters.
The Dracula tie-in. I am always a big fan of taking elements of a story that has reached pop culture saturation (like, say, Dracula) and devising alternate explanations, or adding to the story and backstory, or just messing with it. I enjoyed the way George messed with it.
What didn’t work for me:
Dacia’s reaction. I can’t be too specific about this without being a major spoiler. So I’ll try to talk around it a bit. Something vastly important happens to Dacia, and it really messes with her head. But the way she reacts didn’t ring very true to me. It seemed too big of a response, for reasons that I didn’t find wholly convincing. What was so frustrating here was that I felt like it could have been so easily corrected, just by emphasizing a few elements of the event a little more. It’s a minor quibble, though, and I just pretended that it had been written the way I wanted (hooray for the imagination!), so it worked out fine.
In short: It was not a perfect, luminous novel (see my Daughter of the Forest review), but it was highly readable, highly enjoyable if you like the genre. It left me happy I read it and still hearing the haunting words in my head, “I am the Claw. I am the Wing. I am the Smoke.”