Indie Review: The Songbird’s Refrain
If this is your first time here, please read this explanation of the philosophy and purpose of these reviews.
What it’s about
Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth has spent her life clinging to one particular phrase: “You aren’t important.” But the strange circus act she happens upon proves the exact opposite—because she’s been chosen as the next victim of a malevolent witch called the Mistress. Cursed, trapped in a cage, and forced to sing, Elizabeth is in a race against the clock to interpret her strange dreams and find a way to stop the Mistress’s magic…before it destroys Elizabeth just like it’s destroyed hundreds of girls before her.
What rocked my socks
Atmosphere: The circus Elizabeth gets caught up in is delightfully creepy, and the descriptions are both unsettling and intriguing from the start (The lanterns! The birdcage! The curtains!). The lurking menace of the Mistress and her past drive the story really well and make you worry about Elizabeth’s fate and the fates of the other circus acts. (Full disclosure: You should definitely be worried.)
A theme that’s full of feels: I’m a sucker for a story that takes a disenfranchised character, shakes them by the shoulders, and says, Hey, you do matter. I’m pretty sure everyone’s had moments when they’ve felt unseen and unimportant. The fact that Elizabeth not only feels this but also has a “practical” inner voice that tries to “help” by being cruel makes her a disturbingly relatable character. (Ouch!)
Judging by the cover: There’s a reason they say your cover is your first and most important marketing tool! For me, this was definitely a case of being drawn in by the book cover. The colors and imagery do a great job of conveying the creepy, lyrical nature of the story. 10/10, would admire again.
What didn’t rock my socks so much
Instalove: While the narrative actually straight-up comments on this multiple times, it doesn’t change the fact that the main romantic relationship is less about two well-developed characters falling in love and more about the plot requiring that they be into each other (granted, with some discussion about choice vs. destiny guiding the pairing). The premise being what it is, I’m not sure exactly how you’d work around this, but it did make it hard to see the relationship as believable, no matter how much I wanted to.
Passive MC: Elizabeth spends a lot of time passively processing information rather than taking action, particularly at first. (Not a lot of options for action when you’re stuck in a cage.) It’s easy to sympathize with her, for sure, but it would’ve been nice to see her taking proactive steps earlier rather than just (literally) dreaming about the situation until the pieces came together.
One more round: At the risk of being gauche, I’ve got to admit that I was thrown out of the story multiple times by spelling, grammar, and other editing errors. Nothing was super egregious, but there were a noticeable number of copyediting issues, not to mention multiple telling-vs.-showing moments (or, more accurately, showing-then-telling-what-we-just-saw moments). The book would’ve really benefited from one more round of editing to smooth out the rough edges.
While there were elements of character and plot that didn’t quite work for me, the underlying story and mood are compelling (I readily admit to experiencing some staying-up-past-bedtime-to-read-one-more-chapter evenings!). I’ll definitely be checking out more from this author.
Get your copy of The Songbird’s Refrain here.
Writerly Takeaway Corner
- There’s nothing like setting the mood to get your reader excited about your story. Never underestimate the importance of finding the perfect combination of word wrangling and cover art.
- Be careful about how you set up your characters and their conflicts. Does the plot give them the opportunity to take decisive action? Or are they stuck just reacting to whatever you’re throwing at them? Your characters don’t have to spend all their time punching people or jumping out of airplanes, of course. But they do need to make active choices and propel the plot rather than just waiting for it to happen to them.
- No matter how far out and magical your story is, there’s always a way to draw readers in by showing them something they’re familiar with. Our fears about everything from our place in the world to whether that attractive person thinks we’re dorky make us human–and can lead to some very relatable, cathartic stories.
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