A refreshing YA fantasy-mystery

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I went into this book with only the briefest idea of the plot and was pleasantly surprised by how thrilling it was! In a market oversaturated with ancient and medieval fantasy settings, the Gilded Age-inspired setting and Art Nouveau aesthetic was a fun and unique fantasy world. I’m a sucker for a good, layered city-setting, and Caraza was a fantastic blend of decadence and gritty crime. Some of the criminal gangs felt a bit too stereotypical for me, but I’m hoping their plots get tightened up and refined before publication.

Garden of the Cursed really delivers on the fantasy-mystery pitch. The mystery felt integral to the storyline instead of falling victim to the inevitable romantic subplot, and there were enough red-herrings thrown in that it kept me second-guessing. Although I was able to guess the eventual culprit, it was still really fun to explore other characters, even if they were momentary distractions. The cast of characters as a whole were really interesting, and Pool does a good job of using her characters to explore the different dynamics amongst the elite noblesse nouveau. However, I felt like a lot of the characters fell into tropes (ex: gay best friend, trio of mean girls) and their motivations often felt unexplored. It didn’t distract me too much, but for the sheer amount of characters in this book, I would have appreciated a deeper dive into their psyches.

If the secondary characters felt a bit too one-dimensional for my taste, the two main characters were thankfully more developed. Marlow was a good protagonist with a determination that I could personally relate to, especially when it came to her inability to settle for her circumstances. Adrius had me squealing a couple of times and definitely felt a little Cardan Greenbriar-esque. I liked the slow-burn rekindled romance between Marlow and Adrius, though their lack of communication could be exasperating to some readers–they were really testing my tolerance. I didn’t fully understand why Marlow “hated” Adrius so much (the miscommunication trope required quite the suspension of belief and it seemed mostly one-sided “enemies”-to-lovers), but the romantic tension between them was fantastic.

As much as Garden of the Cursed could be a character-driven book (it’s only from Marlow’s POV), I found that my enjoyment derived from the plot and world. Pool does a great job of using mystery to propel the plot while slowly revealing the city setting, from the fabulously-rich Evergarden to the swampy Marshes. I wish we could have known more about the spellcard and curse magic that drives the entire economy, but there were enough tidbits of information to satiate me. I’m really looking forward to book 2, so hopefully the sequel develops the world and magic further!

Thank you to NetGalley and Henry Holt and Co (Macmillan Children’s) for the e-ARC! All views and opinions are my own.

4.5/5 stars