A Clever World Held Captive by a Romance that Will Not Move

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Marlow Briggs is a fantastic curse breaker, part magician, part detective, if someone comes to her with a curse she will figure out who cast it and see to it that the curse is lifted. It is the life she has built for herself in the year since her mother disappeared and she needed to leave the glimmering streets of Caraza’s beyond wealthy Evergarden district for the mean streets and hard living of the Marshes. The life suits her well enough even if the mystery most important to her has run into a dead end. At least, it suits her well enough until an old friend the son of one of Evergarden’s most powerful spell-making families, tracks her down with what might be the most dangerous curse of her career. With this curse comes a break in the case of her mother’s disappearance, and for the sake of her own mystery Marlow might just be willing to deal with a fake relationship with the boy who broke her heart. But what happens when trying to figure out Adrius’ curse and her mother’s disappearance starts to reveal a mystery even greater, even more dangerous, than either that brought her to it?

Katy Rose Pool’s Garden of the Cursed is a book with fascinating potential and a romance that left me more than a touch frustrated. The setting is a delight, a blend of people abandoned to the edges of society, forced at times to sell their blood, their words, their very memories to survive, and the nobility, the high society who waste so very much so very deliberately just to show off. The magic system as described is something I really want to be allowed as a reader to chew on. But then the romance crops up and just sits there refusing to move forward or allow anything else to move forward without it.

I do want to acknowledge, having complained about the romance, that I did expect romance to be present in Garden of the Cursed, this is a YA fantasy novel centering a fake dating situation after all. I expected the romance to happen. But, despite this being the first in a duology, I did not expect the romance to dig its heels in and refuse to move at all until the very end of the book. It got really tiring to see Marlow tamping down on her swooning over Adrius or noting to herself how very sincere about his feelings Adrius seemed, only to remind herself that he has to be good at pretending. This is not just because the romance was pretty obviously going to happen, but also because every time a moment like that happened it felt like an opportunity for solid character growth got quashed. It made the big reveal of Adrius’ feelings feel cheap and the dramatic moment where it happens feel silly and overwrought instead of properly shattering.

All that above, said to get my big complaint about the book out of the way. For me the romance in Garden of the Cursed was poorly included and did a lot to get in the way of a legitimately interesting mystery set in a world that I wanted to chew on well after I finished reading the book. If the mystery had been given more of the page space that the fake relationship took, or if we had seen more of the world, that would have been brilliant. There is this amazing divide between the Marshes, peopled by the lower class, haunted by dangerous mafia style gangs, the source of so many of the ingredients needed for spell work, and Evergarden, the wealthy district, peopled by the Five Families, glittering with magic and money in near equal measure, a place of lavish waste. Marlow has lived in both of these areas. Knows that she, the daughter of a chevalier rather than a noble, belongs far more to the Marshes than Evergarden. Knows how horribly wasteful Evergarden is and how very much that wastefulness costs the people of the Marshes. And that is all touched on, but not much more than that.

Similarly the magic system, with its strange and costly ingredients and the need for spellwriters to create cards to hold spells, absolutely fascinates me. I want to know more about how it works. What kind of spells can be written into cards? What are the limits? How are ingredients like memories or a person’s voice used? I want to know more about all of it and more, but there was not room given for that.

On the positive side, Pool does a good job with the character work on the whole. Marlow is a solidly realized protagonist with what feels like good reasons for why she does not trust many of the other characters, Adrius in particular. Adrius is clearly conflicted by the whole fake relationship thing and has several moments where it is obvious that he is putting his heart on the line and being totally open to Marlow. Even more minor characters are nicely consistent and feel well thought out.

I find myself unsure of where this leaves me exactly with Garden of the Cursed. The story is solid. The world building is solid. The character work is good. But all of it winds up feeling secondary to a romance that frustrates me so, so badly because it over stays its welcome and would have been resolved in all of two scenes if Marlow and Adrius had bothered to actually talk to each other at all. Despite all of my frustration with the romance, I find myself deeply curious about how the story is going to resolve in light of the various twists at the end of the book. I want to see this grander mystery solved and that has to mean something good for the book. So, yeah, I give Garden of the Cursed a three out of five with the note that that comes with a healthy dose of hope that the sequel has way, way less of the romance.