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Book Review: “Bright Ruined Things” and its half-assed retelling of “The Tempest”

If I’ve learned anything from perpetually reading, it’s this: don’t ever trust anyone on an island. Case in point, “Lord of the Flies,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Tempest”–need I say more? To add to this list, Samantha Cohoe’s YA October release “Bright Ruined Things” cements my opinion that characters placed islands are untrustworthy to a T.

Living on an island controlled by the family patriarch, Mae is just a step above the spirit slaves Lord Prosper conquered decades ago in the island hierarchy. Mae longs to have a magic of her own and a place amongst the wealthy Prospers. On First Night, a celebration of Lord Prosper’s conquering, the web of lies Mae has believed her entire life starts to unravel as secrets are revealed about herself, the island, and the Prospers’ magic.

“Bright Ruined Things” is meant to be a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play “The Tempest”–the only similarities being a few shared names, the infamous island, and the Prosper patriarch acquiring magic like Shakespeare’s Prospero. Although an immersive read, knowing that “Bright Ruined Things” is meant to retell Shakespeare’s play seems to be a half-hearted attempt to reimagining the iconic play.

If anything, “Bright Ruined Things” exudes West Egg from “The Great Gatsby” vibes–the grand, family home, extravagant wealth, and 1920s atmosphere aligning almost perfectly with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic.

The characters start off mildly likable; Mae, Miles, Coco, and Ivo are made out to be pawns in a game they have little control over and have ambitions outside of the island’s legacy. Yet, as the story progresses and secrets are revealed, it’s evident that the youngest Prospers are not the reluctant and ambitious characters they’re originally made out to be. By the end of “Bright Ruined Things,” you’ll surely hate every character for a wide range of reasons, not limited to selfishness, greed, and overall dick-ish antics.

Yes, Mae is meek at times and a little unlikeable, but that’s the whole point of her character growth. Not every character seeks the morally good choices that readers wish for–many (just like real people) are self-serving and genuinely unlikable. Although the climax pressures Mae to act in selflessness rather than her own self-interest, I always love a character who doesn’t follow the usual heroics and martyrdom of many YA heroines.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to fully agree or love a character to like them. Suppose readers can love the morally gray murderer in other YA novels. Why can’t I like the loathsome protagonist that makes me want to constantly throw the book across the room?

By the time the climax came around, the edge-of-your-seat tension Cohoe had laid the groundwork for in the first half fall flat and leave you wondering, “Where did all that pent-up tension go?” If not for the events following the catastrophic event on Prosper island, there’s little reason to read past the climax, in all honesty.

Moments of misogyny and elitism from the Prosper family make for decisive commentary throughout the novel and divulge the reader in the pretty illusion the Prospers have created for Mae and the outside world–not unlike the real elites of our world.

I still hold that characters placed on islands are the most untrusty of all–the bubbles they have created only stifling their own freedom. “Bright Ruined Things,” although mildly anti-climactic, makes for an immersive and imaginative read that will pull you in for a wild ride.

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