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Review | The Rose & the Dagger by Renée Ahdieh

So basically all I can say is prepare yourselves, if you would. Because it's been days since I finished this one and I absolutely refuse to go quietly into the night about it. I completely adored Ms. Ahdieh's debut novel The Wrath & the Dawn. I thought it did a beautiful job of reworking an extremely problematic fairy tale to begin with, and it did so in believable and beautiful ways. I mean, I went into it frankly expecting a degree of justification for the story's subject matter. But I also was prepared to give the author the benefit of the doubt, seeing as how she went to all the trouble of retelling it for a modern audience. And my willingness was unquestionably rewarded. Which is why I was so eager to get my hands on the sequel and find out what those two people I'd thought about so much in the intervening year had been up to. I felt sure all would be well. Perilous, to be sure. Fraught, to be sure. But well.

The rubble has cleared and Khalid Ibn al-Rashid is on one side of the wreckage, while Shahrzad al-Khayzuran is on the other. Khalid is occupied night and day by helping his people rebuild their shattered city and by forcing himself not to think too much on exactly why Shahrzad left and when, if ever, she will be back. For her part, Shazi is determined not to bring any more hell raining down upon the husband she loves. And as such, that means she is forced to once again play a part. The part of dutiful lover of Tariq. The part of doting daughter and sister. The part of a woman who has come to her senses, who sees the monster king of Rey for what he is, and who is ready and willing to take part in the rebellion that is being crafted to bring about his overthrow. Reality is somewhat more difficult to discern, and it will take more than a magic carpet and a secret love to halt the war that everyone sees coming and possibly bring an end to the curse that has plagued the king and his people for so long.

So. I have a Goodreads shelf entitled "Absolute Train Wrecks." And while there is not what you might call a long list of titles on that shelf, the ones that are there are the ones that drove me to absolute distraction. They are the ones that were such a hot mess that I was forced to rant aloud to my husband and closest of friends in order to somehow process the magnitude of how wrong everything went. Unfortunately, that shelf has acquired its latest denizen. Because I literally cannot seem to overstate how disappointed/enraged/appalled I was by this book. At the 3/4 mark, I seriously considered not finishing it at all. It was bad, guys. So bad that Beth came over to help run damage control by talking it out. So bad that Aaron immediately saw the writing on the wall and took me out to see the new Captain America film to remind me that there are still good things in the world. But finish it, I did. And then I immediately cast about finding a different home for the copy I'd bought so that it wouldn't darken my door a moment longer than necessary. That's right, we're talking The Actor and the Housewife levels of anger and resentment here. I told you it was bad. 

The thing is, I felt like the tight narrative grip that held throughout the first book completely unraveled in this one, with devastating consequences. With the exception of one scene, I didn't enjoy a single moment between Shazi and Khalid. Not that they spent anything resembling enough time together. The arbitrarily enforced separation felt so manufactured to me. All the stakes could have been kept just as high had they fought together. Separately, all the tension and beauty and squabbling that made up their relationship dissipated in so much smoke. Ms. Ahdieh excels at dialogue, and yet the only people actually talking were the abruptly introduced secondary couple. I quite liked Irsa and Rahim, but the fact that their scenes wildly outshone the protagonists' left me cold and troubled. And finishing it only confirmed my conviction that this sequel, its pacing and characterization, was a slapdash effort at best. Essentially every plot point and/or "twist" in the final third felt like a cop out to me. Characters behave thoroughly inconsistently and too little is made of the few moments that should have held a lot of meaning, robbing them of any shred they might have held onto. I'm sorry, but I cry foul. Cheap emotional manipulation and sub-par storytelling was not what I witnessed in the first novel, and it was not what I expected here. But it was what I got, and when I think of it, I still feel ill. Shut it down, book. We're through. 

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