OUT JANUARY 14th! Thank you to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
If there are people in your life (or if you are this person) who are thirsting for beautiful, thoughtful, magical YA novels with an inclusive and LGBTQ+ focus, look no further than Anna-Marie McLemore! Their classic fairy tale retellings and LGBTQ+ fantasy-lite YA novels really scratch an itch and fill the soul.
They continue to delight with Dark and Deepest Red, a retelling of both the classic fairy tale The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen and real historical events from hundreds of years ago. McLemore seamlessly moves the narrative between two teens living in a slightly enchanted modern town and a young Roma woman (Lala) trying to pass in society with her aunt and a trans boy in Strasbourg in 1518, the same year a mysterious dancing mania overcame hundreds of residents in the city. The two stories blend together and inform each other in ways that will break and mend your heart. This is a story about building acceptance, community, and self-love. It is about honoring your past, your heritage, and your place in the world.
In the modern plot line we follow Emil, a Roma descendant of Lala, and Rosella, a Latina girl whose family make beautiful shoes. Their red shoes are particularly sought after. During that year’s magical “glimmer” (the temporary enchantment that takes over once a year and usually bring harmless magical mischief), Emil and Rosella make huge personal discoveries and gain a kind of self-love hard to attain for people who do not fit the accepted mold. Part of those discoveries and acceptances are rooted in the story of Emil’s ancestor, Lala, in 1518 during the dancing plague. With these two events, McLemore mixes in some incredible history and commentary on the treatment of both Roma and LGBTQ+ people throughout time.
In 1518, Lala, her aunt, and her aunt’s apprentice live a quiet life supporting themselves by dying fabrics and making high quality inks. They try to hide their true identities from their friends and other citizens of Strasbourg as best they can (rumors about Italian lineage for Lala and her aunt, a bound chest for her aunt’s apprentice), but when women start to dance themselves to death, their otherness comes front and center.
Hundreds of years later in a completely different part of the world, the glimmer settles over Emil’s town and brings with it a special magic that settles in the beautiful hand crafted red shoes Rosella’s family makes. People who wear the red shoes lose their inhibitions, profess long loves, become more bold, and blossom into who they truly are. But for Rosella it brings a dancing curse. For Emil, it brings truths about his ancestry that he has spent years intentionally avoiding in order to fit in.
Both Rosella and Emil learn that the only way to overcome the magic in this year’s glimmer is to full accept who they are, where they came from, and live those identities loudly and proudly. Their strength in unity help them gain a freedom they never thought an option. Lala and her family discovers the same. To build community by embracing those details once hidden out of fear is a strong gift and a way to freedom.
This book is beautifully written. It paints real-world issues and struggles with a delicate brush of magical realism without fading the harsh realities of history and our current time. It is overflowing with love and acceptance, and it faces what it takes to love yourself head-on. My only criticism is that the plot of this book is a bit simplistic, and there are many unanswered questions. But regardless, it is very enjoyable!
I admire McLemore and the messages they bring to their stories. I especially love their centering of Romani people in Dark and Deepest Red. Roma are still targeted often and physically removed by governments…something many people don’t realize. McLemore draws attention to their treatment, past and present, and offers us better examples of who these people truly are.