I didn’t so much read Grim Lovelies as swallow it whole, devouring it in less than a day. It was a fast-paced, action-heavy narrative with innovative magic and a diverse and appealing cast. And because it was fun, it was easy to rush past its flaws, though there were a few. Because of that it won’t be for everyone, but it’s a solid read.
For a book about the City of Lights, the book managed some admirable darkness. Some of the punishments Anouk endures are very Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and I do mean the original versions, not the Disneyfied ones. The morbidity gave the story some complexity and depth, and real urgency since the consequences were terrifying to contemplate.
Anouk, one of five animals transformed into humans who work for the witch who created them, is largely content as a housemaid. She longs to go outside and see the local wishing fountain, but has no desire to leave the service of Mada Vittoria. Unfortunately, she has little choice once Mada Vittoria is murdered and she seems like an accomplice. Suddenly she must flee everything she knows in order not to lose everything she is: without another witch to enchant her, she will turn back into an animal. And so will all her fellow Beasties, darling Beau and conniving Cricket, and even the wicked Hunter Black.
A murder mystery, a missing person, a royal conspiracy, a witchy territory war, and a ticking clock. That’s a lot, and Shepherd juggles each issue capably. No thread ever gets lost or confused, and Anouk manages to provide a focal point for all the magic as well as the action.
Anouk was a little lacking in personality to start out. She reminded me of a paler version of Rapunzel in Tangled, the kind of eager-to-please shut-in who easily earns our sympathy but takes a little longer to earn our respect. But Anouk isn’t given a chance—or doesn’t take a chance—to hit anyone with a frying pan or paint her heart out. She mostly follows what her fellow Beasties tell her to do, shying away from responsibility or action.
But slowly, Anouk began to wake from the dream—the illusion—that Mada Vittora was her mother and grapple with the reality that Mada Vittora was her owner and often her abuser. She doesn’t really have time to develop more interests, but fortunately the development of her self-confidence is compelling enough on its own. I would have liked to see more facets to her personality emerge, but I still liked her well enough.
Anouk’s romance was not terribly romantic. There are glimmers of real connection–dancing in sudsy water, dreaming of sharing normal activities—but those are outweighed by jealousy and inexperience. Anouk has only been human for a year, and has never been outside her house. Declarations of love ring hollow when she barely knows herself enough to say whether she likes a particular person or just wants to feel loved. Much more compelling was the familial love that develops between the Beasties. Though extremely different and often at odds, they create a makeshift family for themselves that made for some of the strongest scenes in the book.
Likewise compelling were the little details, like calling the royals the Haute, the ingredients for spells, and the fairy tales Anouk uses to understand the world. I only wish there had been more such details, especially about Paris. Take away mentions of patisseries and key architectural features (the Seine, the Eiffel Tower) and this could have been any city. I just didn’t feel like I was in Paris again. Granted the characters didn’t have a lot of time for sight-seeing, but that only makes it more incumbent on Shepherd to infuse the descriptions with a sense of place. I didn’t have a sense of Paris from the story that I couldn’t have gotten from Google Maps.
I also would have liked to see the magic taken further. There are some good ideas here—a bottomless bag, portraits that function as remote spy-holes, and so on—but there was more work to do to make this a full and immersive world. I hope that in subsequent books she pushes her creativity further, exploring the various magical cultures and developing more nuances for her magic system.
I appreciated the twisty, unexpected ending, even though this means the book is far from complete. I’m expecting another trilogy based on the number of loose ends that went untied, so prepare yourself for that if you expected resolution. There was satisfaction to be had, though, in Anouk’s growth and the development of all the Beasties. It’s not a bad foundation on which to build, but the next book will really decide which way the scales tip for the series. Until then, pack this one for a weekend trip or a last trip to the beach and enjoy.