This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Book of Love will be released on February 13, 2024.
Kelly Link is one of those authors that seems to be regularly lauded as one of the greats in contemporary speculative fiction, but because she doesn’t regularly publish in the outlets I regularly read, I hadn’t tried much of her work. But what I had tried showed sufficient facility with prose and atmosphere that I was extremely intrigued when I saw she was releasing her debut novel, The Book of Love.
The Book of Love primarily follows four teenagers returned from the dead under mysterious circumstances. As they return to their small coastal New England town, they’re tasked with learning magic and figuring out just how they died. But the more they learn, the more they’re pulled into a centuries-long power struggle among figures with tremendous power and uncertain motivations.
If you’re not here for the words, The Book of Love will not be the book for you, as it spends the first third of the book not even hinting at a rush. Yes, the resurrection happens early, but in the aftermath, the main characters are mostly confused, going about their ordinary lives with little hints of the uncanny reminding them every now and again that there’s something bigger to figure out.
A lot of reviews point to this slow start as a major flaw, but I didn’t see it that way. I found the descriptions of mundane life to be quietly beautiful, and there was enough promise of plot that I didn’t mind sitting with an extended setup. I understand that not everyone will respond the same way, but for readers who enjoy slower paced, literary-leaning sections, the first third of this book is a treat.
In contrast to the other mixed reviews, it’s what came after that didn’t really grab me. The story opens up into a conflict between undying figures who range from mildly unsympathetic to absolutely horrible. And the main characters aren’t a whole lot better. One of the four very intentionally tries to focus on helping family and opting out of the entire magical conflict (with mixed success), but for the rest, there’s a lot of hookups, a dollop of family drama, and not a whole lot to generate a lot of reader investment in their fate.
In a way, the focus on the mundane details that was such a strength early in the story turned into a weakness as it went on, because major events just blended into the mundane, and the fantasy plot with life-or-death stakes never really felt like it had life-or-death stakes, even when people were actively dying. And so overall, while there was a lot I liked here, the main story was a bit of a miss. The author is clearly immensely talented with prose and scene-building, but shaping a story at 600-page length is another skill entirely, and while there were flashes of brilliance, I didn’t think it was a story that improved with the extra length.
Recommended if you like: literary-leaning descriptions of not-entirely-sympathetic characters in everyday life (but also big fantasy plots).
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Literary SFF, and it also has a Coastal Setting and Mundane Jobs. And if you wait for April, it’ll doubtless be hard mode for Published in 2024.
Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.