When I heard a YA book was coming out that was a lesbian boarding school Macbeth retelling, I was already on board before I had even heard that it was by Robin Talley, the author of one of my favourite lesbian YA books.
This isn’t a direct retelling of Macbeth, but it does cover most of the main plot points, and it delivered exactly the kind of broody atmosphere full of revenge plots that I was hoping for. There are some great nods to the original story, including the chapter titles all being lines from the play, but it also works if you haven’t read or seen the play–or if, like me, you read it years ago and have to Wikipedia the plot details. The haunted boarding school (built on a former plantation) adds to the creepy factor, pulling in a strong Southern Gothic vibe.
As I Descended immediately drops us into this atmosphere, with the main characters summoning spirits with a Ouija board. I really enjoyed this brooding story, but I was surprised when the genre started to slip slightly into horror territory. I would definitely warn anyone planning on reading it that there are triggers common to horror, including blood and violence, as well as a blurring of reality.
It’s probably silly to mention in a review of a Macbeth retelling, but this gets very dark. If you only read LGBTQ books with a happily ever after, this isn’t the book for you. These are deeply flawed people, and the relationship at the heart of Descended is an unhealthy one. Maria (read: Macbeth) and Lily (read: Lady Macbeth) obviously are devoted to each other, but Lily knows how to manipulate Maria and uses that information. Maria initially seems to be an ideal student and friend, but as soon as she begins to lose that moral high ground she can’t seem to stop slipping.
It’s enough to have a lesbian YA Macbeth retelling, but there are other elements going on in this narrative as well. Maria is Latina, and her understanding of what’s happening to her and the spirit(s?) in the school comes from her relationship with Altagracia, her childhood nanny, who taught her how to communicate with spirits. Mateo is also Latino, but he has a different understanding of the spirits at the school. Lily is desperate to overcome being seen as just “the girl with the crutches”, and is terrified of adding “lesbian” to that.
Mateo, Brandon, Lily, and Maria are all queer, so no one character has to represent all of queerkind. That way, although a Macbeth retelling has a low survival rate, this doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” situation, because a) it’s a genre that demands a high death rate and b) no one character is The Gay.
I did feel like I couldn’t quite understand why Maria changed so drastically over the course of the book, and I was surprised at the tone change from “delightfully broody” to “I’m legitimately horrified”, but those are small complaints.
I would definitely recommend this one, especially on a blustery fall evening.