Book Review: What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young adult Gothic horror
Publisher: FSG
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Pages: 400, hardcover
Source: Edelweiss

Rose Szabo’s thrilling debut is a dark and thrilling novel about a teen girl who returns home to her strange, wild family after years of estrangement, perfect for fans of Wilder Girls.

Eleanor Zarrin has been estranged from her wild family for years. When she flees boarding school after a horrifying incident, she goes to the only place she thinks is safe: the home she left behind. But when she gets there, she struggles to fit in with her monstrous relatives, who prowl the woods around the family estate and read fortunes in the guts of birds.

Eleanor finds herself desperately trying to hold the family together — in order to save them all, Eleanor must learn to embrace her family of monsters and tame the darkness inside her.

Exquisitely terrifying, beautiful, and strange, this fierce gothic fantasy will sink its teeth into you and never let go.

NOTE: There are spoilers for this book in the review!

I almost gave up on What Big Teeth about 30% of the way in. The beginning was confusing, as it made me think I had missed a detail or an explanation of something that needed an explanation, when I hadn’t. Half of Eleanor’s mother’s body is covered in polyps, and she spends all her time in water. This is actually never explained and it’s never said why her mother is obviously part-fish. Eleanor seems to have gotten some traits from the fish part of her mother, such as webbed skin between her thumbs and enjoying being in the water, but it’s never followed through. More to the point, Eleanor keeps wondering why she’s so different from the rest of her family and why she never became a wolf, and it’s like… girl, you obviously took after your mother. What is there not to get? 

I suppose Szabo wanted to give her readers some credit and assume they were smart enough to put the pieces together themselves, but this doesn’t really work. Honestly, the character of the mother could have been cut out entirely and the novel wouldn’t have lost anything; her characterization is thin and she has no effect on the plot.

That was a big theme in What Big Teeth, actually: Eleanor never puts the pieces together until well after the reader has. The book is slowly paced and I’ve read that it’s more suited to older readers who have the patience to wait for answers, but I think that Eleanor’s inability to put the obvious together would cause older readers to get frustrated quickly. It’s very obvious what’s going on, but Eleanor doesn’t catch on right away, and when she does, she intentionally ignores it so the plot can continue.

Another big theme was introducing things and then just not following through on them. Eleanor’s maternal grandmother can force people to do things through verbal commands, such as “Go to your room and stay there”. This works on everyone, even Eleanor, but not her older sister Luma. Just like their mother’s half-fish background, this is never explained. I suppose some readers will be fine with this, but I personally wasn’t.

There’s also a reveal at the end that Eleanor is a reincarnation of her paternal grandparent’s first child who died young, but that was in no way foreshadowed at all through the novel. There was more support for her being a reincarnation of her maternal grandmother’s children than there was for that. 

The ending was pretty strong, to the point where I wondered if it was written as a short story first and then Szabo just built a novel around it. I will say it was a relatively fast read because the writing wasn’t overly purple-y; it was actually a little sparse, for a Gothic horror. 

I might come back for another novel by Szabo, as maybe the weak points here were just because she’s a debut author. I’m sad to say What Big Teeth was a miss for me, though.

Book Review: Rebel Rose (The Queen’s Council #1) by Emma Theriault

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Disney+Hyperion
Publication Date: November 10th, 2020
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Happily ever after is only the beginning as Belle takes on the responsibility of becoming queen and learns to balance duty, love, and sacrifice, all while navigating dark political intrigue-and a touch of magic.

It’s 1789 and France is on the brink of revolution. Belle has finally broken the Enchantress’s curse, restoring the Beast to his human form as Prince Adam, and bringing life back to their castle in the province of Aveyon. But in Paris, the fires of change are burning, and it’s only a matter of time before the rebellion arrives on their doorstep.

Belle has always dreamed of leaving her provincial home for a life of adventure. But now she finds herself living in a palace, torn between her roots as a commoner, and her future as a royal. When she stumbles across a mysterious, ancient magic that brings with it a dire warning, she must question whether she is ready for the power being thrust on her, and if being Queen is more than just a title.

Rebel Rose is the first in the Queen’s Council series, an empowering fairy tale reimagining of the Disney Princesses–and the real history behind their stories–like you’ve never seen before.

Rebel Rose starts off strong, but the middle loses its footing and the book doesn’t seem sure of how to achieve a court intrigue plotline. At times the middle portion of the book felt like it was simply filler material until it could get to the third act.

The ending is tight, and I appreciated the inclusion of a Black queer woman, and the further canonization of LeFou as being a gay man. (I also appreciated that it’s made explicit that Gaston was abusive/a bully towards LeFou as well.) 

However, Belle and the Prince (here called Lio) are only in Paris for a brief few days before returning to their own castle to try to get ahead of the danger. Belle also spends a lot of time inside the castle, so the danger never felt very present or very much like a threat. This is mostly solved in the third act where the danger comes to the castle and Belle actually has to deal with it head on, but it was a little late after the meandering second act.

Still, it’s nice to see that Disney is willing to age up their canon, with Bastille Day being an on-the-page event, and even some of the characters cursing. Though I did find it funny that, while violence and cursing are okay, the book is mostly scrubbed of any intimacy past kissing and has only one real subtle nod to sex. (Not that I think we need to read about Disney characters having on-page sex scenes, but the contrast between a dude getting beheaded on page and the chaste kisses Belle and Lio share was a little off-kilter.)

A problem I find in a lot of these Disney books is that the characters simply don’t sound like the ones we saw in the movies. This is still a problem in Rebel Rose, as sometimes the characterization of Belle and the others slipped. I’m willing to cut a little slack in this case, as it can’t have been easy to strike a balance between the somewhat modern language used in the original movie, and the need to have the characters talk like they actually live in the late 18th century France. Still, Belle came across as surprisingly passive here, especially in the aforementioned troubled middle section.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d recommend Rebel Rose. It has its strengths, but I’m not sure they outweigh the faults.