Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
I really didn’t have much attachment to this book; I think I just put it on my TBR because I’d like Victoria Lee’s previous book, The Fever King, a decent amount, and I’d heard there was queer rep in it. I ended up fishing it out of my TBR to find specifically queer books for pride month, and it was available at my local library, so why not? To my dismay, A Lesson in Vengeance was one of the most frustrating books I’d read in a long time—it’s been a while since I’ve been this angry at a book.
Enjoy this week’s review!
Felicity Morrow carries a great burden: she may have been responsible for the untimely death of her girlfriend, Alex. After that fateful day, she took a semester off from the Dalloway School, a legendary—and perhaps haunted—boarding school deep in the mountains. But when she returns, a fascinating girl named Ellis has arrived, a teen author prodigy who came to the school to research for her next novel. Felicity and Ellis become entrenched in the history of occult and witchcraft tied to the Dalloway School, but the path they go down is one that could lead to death—or worse.
TW/CW: murder, gore, animal death, loss of loved ones, mental health issues (depression), grief, toxic relationships, descriptions of murder (hanging, burying alive, etc.)
I don’t think a book has made me this angry in ages. I should’ve DNF’d it, but I almost just finished it out of spite. I recognize that there’s so much work that goes into writing a book and putting it out into the world, so take this review as you will, but god. I have an absolute laundry list of gripes with this book, I’m sad to say.
A Lesson in Vengeance pretty clearly took inspiration from The Secret History, a book that I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. But there’s a key aspect of The Secret History that A Lesson in Vengeance astronomically missed the mark on that could’ve made or broke it: it’s established early on that it’s a cautionary tale, and that these characters are either already horribly toxic people or that the book is their corruption arc. A Lesson in Vengeance misses that by miles, and these deeply flawed characters are romanticized. I’m not saying that I need “UNRELIABLE TOXIC NARRATOR” in skywriting, but the way that Lee romanticized Felicity deliberately going off her meds and dismissing her well-meaning therapists disgusted me. I’m all for “messy” queer characters, but this goes FAR beyond just “messy”—these are just straight-up horrible people, and it seemed like Lee didn’t recognize this or handle it properly.
Let’s talk more about the characters. Lee’s writing style is what earned the half-star from me, but their prose had a fatal flaw when it came to the characters; most of them are meant to be dangerous and alluring, but what was written as “mysterious writer girl with unorthodox methods” was more than anything just another toxic rich person added to the mix. All of the characters were clearly backstabbing, flawed people who solved their problems with drugs and alcohol, but again—it was all romanticized as part of the “dark academia aesthetic.” I’M SORRY, WHAT? How is rich people smoking indoors an “aesthetic?” More importantly, how is DELIBERATELY GOING OFF YOUR MEDS AN “AESTHETIC?” I’ve never been the biggest fan of dark academia, but I can’t deny that when it’s done well, it’s chilling; this, however, was just a mess of a book built off of an aesthetic that failed to realize its fatal shortcomings. I’m sorry, I don’t want to read about rich people smoking indoors for 370-odd pages.
Additionally, there wasn’t much keeping the plot together. I went in thinking that there would be a murder mystery hidden somewhere, along with witches, the occult, and a budding sapphic relationship. However, the book ended up being 60% rich people smoking and drinking themselves silly (uninteresting from the start) with a weak witchcraft sideplot that was sidelined for most of the book and was never really resolved. All of the diversity that this book promised, though well-intentioned, felt more like a checklist: Black character? Check. South-Asian character? Check. And the sapphic relationship that I was hinging on just ended up being a toxic mess of manipulation without any self-awareness of its nature: again, it was framed as an “alluring, mysterious” kind of thing, when in reality, it was just…borderline abusive and devoid of any emotional intelligence whatsoever.
All in all, a premise that had the potential to be mildly interesting, but did nothing more than romanticize its toxic characters and lend itself to a story centered more around a flimsy aesthetic than a plot. 1.5 angry little stars.
A Lesson in Vengeance is a standalone, but Victoria Lee is also the author of the Feverwake series (The Fever King and The Electric Heir, as well as the novellas The Traitor’s Crown and The Stars and Everything in Between) and the forthcoming The Girl That Time Forgot.
That’s it for this week’s book review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!