Bright Ruined Things, Samantha Cohoe (Wednesday Books 978-1-25-076884-1, $18.99, 352pp, hc) February 2022.
Samantha Cohoe’s intriguing mashup of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby makes for a thoroughly immersive read. Set on an island dominated by the wealthy and powerful Prosper family, Bright Ruined Things focuses on a single day when 18-year old Mae, daughter of a deceased but much loved retainer of Lord Prosper, finds herself facing an uncertain future. There have been no guarantees that Mae will remain on the island after becoming an adult; in fact it’s likely she will be sent to make her way alone on the mainland. Stuck in a position of admiring the Prospers, feeling beholden to them, and having strong feelings (both friendship and otherwise) for at least a couple of them, Mae is exceedingly anxious as the day unfolds and her fate might be revealed. She has no way of knowing just what could go wrong on this particular day, however, or how cataclysmic the impact will be for everyone who attends the Prosper’s infamous, glittering, First Night celebration.
Lord Prosper presides over an extremely wealthy family who enjoy the financial rewards of the family’s mining of the magic fuel source known as ‘‘aether.’’ Drawn from wells by the island’s original inhabitants, beings known as ‘‘spirits,’’ aether has brought the Prospers not only a great deal of money but also a lot of power. Lord Prosper appears to be both benevolent and capable, wielding the magic needed to keep the aether and the spirits in check, while also using the spirits as servants. (The nature of their relationship becomes clearer as the novel progresses.) His children, their spouses, and his grandchildren are all dependent upon his good favor, as is Mae. When Bright Ruined Things opens, she discovers just how tenuous her position is when she is informed of her engagement to one of the grandchildren, the mercurial Ivo, who is Prosper’s magic-trained heir. Uncertain of Ivo’s motives, blinded by her crush on one of his cousins, and desperate to learn some of Prosper’s magic herself, Mae spends the ensuing hours springing from one revelation to another and trying to figure out just what options, if any, she might have. Her utter dependence upon the Prospers is laid bare as the day (and night) progress and even those she thought were friends reveal their own ugly motives. What’s a young woman to do when all she has ever wanted is a bit of power to call her own? Mae would be wise to fear the choices she might be tempted to make, as would anyone put in her position.
Cohoe leaves the magical elements of the island a bit vague – exactly what the aether is and what it does is unclear. It’s the politics of the aether – who controls it, how they came to have that control, and what they do to retain it – that are the basis of the novel’s real drama. Separate from that are all the relationships between the various Prospers and Mae, and the quite appalling conduct that many of the characters exhibit in maintaining (or destroying) those relationships. Aside from the 1920s setting, it is these relationships that possess the most Gabtsby-esque elements and will conjure images of so many “bright young things” and the damage they often casually inflict on those around them. As for the magic, the spirits, and Lord Prosper himself, there are no spoiler-free ways to discuss much about that. Suffice to say, Mae learns a lot, as do the other young characters, and the names of slavery becomes a significant part of the narrative. Bright Ruined Things is a more insightful novel than readers might expect, while also devoting a fair amount of its pages to considering which means to be a person of integrity who chooses to stand up to the ugliness of power at all costs. I’ll take some Gatsby with my Shakespeare any day, as long as Cohoe is the one doing the writing.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.
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