Robin Talley – As I Descended

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple. Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: Delilah Dufrey.

Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world.

But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to ensure Maria wins the Kingsley Prize, securing their future together.

When feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line between foul and fair.

Robin Talley’s As I Descended is her third book. Talley’s previous books What We Left Behind and Lies We Tell Ourselves received great acclaim and her latest sounded fascinating. Set at a prestigious boarding school, featuring a lesbian couple, feuds, and power struggles, it seemed as if it would make for an awesome read. And it was, quite compellingly so, but it was also a book I don’t quite know what to make of in the end. 

Let’s start with the thing I completely missed—As I Descended is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I didn’t know that going in and if it hadn’t been mentioned in the acknowledgements, I would never have known. I do have to confess I’m an indifferent scholar of Shakespeare. I read a number of his plays for classes at university — I even read MacBeth — but the only plays I would probably recognise in a rewritten format are Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. So my not recognising the book’s connection to the Scottish Play isn’t that surprising, but it does make me wonder how much I missed or whether I would have appreciated the book differently if I had known about its inspiration.

The book is a taut psychological thriller with a fuzzy line between the supernatural and mental health. Even at the end of the book, I don’t know how much was due to the presence of actual ghosts and their malevolent influence and how much was just due to a mental imbalance in the two protagonists. It makes for some extremely unreliable narration, with the only points of view whose truthfulness I never doubted being Brandon’s and Mateo’s. Talley skilfully plays with the difference between the appearance of madness and actually being unhinged, and how these two things are related and can be s(t)imulated through other means, such as drugs.

The stars of the book are Maria and Lily, a closeted couple, that must maintain the appearance of just being best friends and roommates, while at the same time trying to ensure the fact that they will be able to remain together after graduation. This would be stressful enough for any teen, but when they hold a seance that goes awry, things spiral out of control. Lily and Maria see themselves as the heroes in their story, and not just the heroes but the good guys to boot, something which is clearly not the case when seen from the outside. I found both Maria and Lily hard to like by the end, though in the beginning they were amazing. I loved that there was no angst over being together, there is never any doubt about their sexuality and that they want to be together. Instead it is the problem of navigating less-than-supportive families and a possible separation that creates anxiety for them. Their relationship also has an interesting development: at first Lily seemed the dominant one, the strong one in control, but over the course of the novel the dynamic between them completely shifted, to where Maria turned out to be the leading partner. It was a chilling shift and showed that love and obsession are close bedfellows.

The other two characters that get their own point of view are Brandon and Mateo. Brandon was my favourite character of the book by far. He’s earnest and loyal and I loved his wonder at actually being together with Mateo. Brandon’s story pulled at my heart strings and I was completely taken aback by what happened to him. In hindsight, most people probably wouldn’t have been. While Mateo in the present is important to the plot, I found his history and his motivations driven by that history fascinating and I would have loved to have learned even more about him.

There is a lot to love about As I Descended — the book is compelling and Talley’s writing reads effortlessly — yet in the end I was left feeling non-plussed and slightly creeped out. As I Descended was perhaps not the best fit for me, but I’m certainly curious to read more by Robin Talley as I really enjoyed her writing style and I’d love to discover whether I’d get along better with her other books. However, for Shakespeare fans and fans of spooky YA this book might be a great read this holiday season.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.