Review: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

44218347. sy475 SYNOPSIS:

Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.

Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.

With McLemore’s signature lush prose, Dark and Deepest Red pairs the forbidding magic of a fairy tale with a modern story of passion and betrayal.


If you’ve been following me for a while, you’d know that any new release by McLemore pulls me along like a child who has hold of my sleeve. I’ve read all of their books, and was racked by them. Each time I turned the last page, I wanted to hold their stories for a while in the quiet undercurrents of myself, until their edges are worn smooth as creek stones. I thought reading Deep and Darkest Red would feel just as familiar, like slipping into your favorite pair of shoes. But this novel lacked the sort of alchemy that made the author’s previous books so indelible to me, and holding on to this particular story felt like trying to hold on to smoke or shadow.

History, no matter who writes it, cannot hide the blood on its hands. But neither can it hide those who lived it.

McLemore’s new book, “Deep and Darkest Red,” slips through the fissures of recorded history the way smoke rises through dense canopy to illuminate known stories from a new perspective. Without giving too much away, this novel weaves together two distinct timelines: the first is grounded in the present time, and the other traces its way back to 1518 in Strasbourg.

Rosella and Emil were familiar to each other: the brown of their skin and their family heritage set them apart from the rest of their friends, but it also hung between them like a tiny sun, radiating warmth, remaking their faces in red and gold.

Rosella’s Latinx heritage came with magic, and it sank into her very self, like taproots. During a week of October of every year, the “glimmer” touches every pair of red shoes her family makes and leaves stories too, strange and dreamlike—tales of enchantment, of quarreling neighbors turning into friends who exchange recipes, and pining lovers falling into each other’s arms. But this year, a fine layer of gloom settles on Rosella’s shoulders like a dusting of snow when the red shoes her grandparents sewed make her dance with a fury like a fever—a horror reminiscent of the dance plague that racked Strasbourg in 1518.

Emil has always regarded his family’s history as a graveyard; segments of it were buried there, lying in separate graves, and he had no intention of reviving them, lest they open up like a hungry mouth, and swallow him in one gulp. Still, Emil wondered about it constantly, like a cut on the inside of his mouth he could never stop worrying with his tongue. And it came to him in dreams: Lavinia, a five-centuries-ago ancestor who chose to try to find a different way a young Romani woman might live in the world, her kind and fearless trans lover Alifair who refused to shrink like a nail under the hammer of their town’s ire, and the secrets that bound them together far more tightly than anything ever could.

As the story hops back and forth between them, these two young lovers—separated by centuries undergo travels and transformations and gradually learn that they’re young enough to carry fear with them without letting it into their hearts.

“Powerful men may count you as lowly as an animal, Lavinia,” he says, “but remember that the Lord counts men hating you as a sign of that which is holy within you.”

Young adult fantasy gets a jolt of diversity with Deep and Darkest Red, a hearty novel that’s a meditation on family, heritage, love, and the magic mixed up in them, while exploring themes of gender and sexual identity with grace and acute sensitivity. It’s also a powerful illustration of a difficult truth that sifts down to many of us only by degrees, but which nonetheless leaves an imprint on our souls, like tyres on the desert sand: that hate is baked into our history no matter its evolving shape, that there are people who believe they are more valuable to the world, as though they hold it in the lightness of their skin, and that the world has little mercy, but it does have heart, and it’s strong and defiant, and much like the characters in this book, it goes on despite its scars.

The novel’s biggest triumph, for me, lies in the way the story dwells in a place where the real and the fantastic blur, creating a fluid feeling of not knowing precisely where reality leaves off and fantasy takes over and leaving layers of mystery for the reader to unfold. Sometimes it felt the characters were drifting into a kind of reverie that was more mystical than material, and it was in those moments that I remembered how much I loved McLemore’s storytelling with an intense, penetrating relief. But it was a fleeting feeling, forever elusive like a lover’s face receding in the mist, when it’s dampened by the prosaic characters and their too-forgettable point of views, the lack of tension and suspense in the back-and-forth structure, and the absence of some unknown factor that could have turned this story from just okay to utterly splendid.

That said, if you have yet to read a McLemore novel, please do not let this review discourage you. I really recommend you still pick one of their earliest works!

“Those who go looking for demons always find them,” Tante says. “Even in angels.”

2 thoughts on “Review: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

  1. Being from Strasbourg and being familiar with this “dance epidemic”, I kind of want to read this even though you didn’t enjoy it much. I have never seen a fiction book that included that event ! It’s usually historical books that analyze it ! So nice to see it in fiction !


  2. I am on a review reading binge, going through your reviews and God the amount of new books that I have discovered is just … well let’s just say my TBR won’t be very happy about it


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