Today’s team review is from Aidan. He blogs here https://ricketttsblog.wordpress.com/
Aidan has been reading There Was Music by J.D. Grubb
I’ll say upfront: There Was Music is a hard book to read. There was more suffering between its pages than any single person should have to endure. Certainly more than I thought there would be when I saw it described as fantasy. Yet it is absolutely a worthwhile read, since that kind of pain transitions into powerful emotions throughout.
The book is a character study of Prisoner 43-1-12, immersing us in her world. We follow her journey from one tragedy to the next, watching as each event changes who she is fundamentally. There is a rape scene, and others containing sexual assault and torture, while not particularly graphic, set the tone of the novel. It is set to the backdrop of a nation rebuilding after a devastating war, but for the most part the fantasy elements take a backseat to Prisoner 43-1-12, or in some way develop her psyche.
Prisoner 43-1-12 is undoubtedly one of the most complex characters I’ve read in a long time. She’s extremely strong-willed, but more of a quiet perpetually-alive flame than an overt, snarky character. This is a welcome change, as strong women are very rarely portrayed in this way. She’s also introspective, questioning her own choices and perspectives, as well as broader questions like the nature of war and humanity, on a regular basis. This deep exposure to who she is fundamentally really resonated with me, and made it easy to sympathize with her situation, despite never experiencing anything remotely similar to it.
The writing style is a bit inconsistent I found, although I have absolute faith that as J.D. Grubb hones his style, he will overcome this issue. In places there is beautiful prose, which I can only describe as fluid. It had an almost surreal quality to it, and worked very effectively with descriptions of settings and Prisoner 43-1-12’s thoughts. However, there were also places where the writing fell a little flat, more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’. I felt this was particularly the case with the dialogue. Nevertheless, Grubb incorporates other novel aspects into his writing. One such aspect was the use of first person for all the flashbacks, which created a jarring effect between the past and present, among other things.
The other highlight of the novel was the themes. It has a vast amount to say about the futility of war, the nature of love and the power of hope. It certainly doesn’t end there, and I could write pages about each one. A key strength is the open ended approach to these themes though, which allows for each individual reader to walk away with a unique experience from the book.
I did find the other characters to be quite shallow. So much time is spent building up Prisoner 43-1-12 that the others feel underdeveloped, and more like tools for expressing themes than characters in their own right. While definitely not ideal, this was actually not as large an issue as you might think, as most of the time Prisoner 43-1-12 didn’t interact with other people.
The fantasy element of the book was interesting, although not a major part. I thought it worked well sometimes, such as providing a medium for an exploration of death and the after-life, as well as war. However, there was a strange section at the end of the book that felt like a big infodump about the world-building, which seemed strange to me, as most of the information received had no bearing on the overall plot. I think it would have been better off without it, as it made for an anti-climactic ending. I definitely preferred the more unintrusive way the fantasy was handled in the first 75% of the book.
Overall, I’d give it a 5 out of 7. There is clearly a lot of potential in J.D. Grubb’s writing, but there were also elements that could be tightened up. However, I thought the protagonist and themes were high-quality, and I’m excited to see where it goes in the future.
Many thanks to Rosie and J.D. Grubb for providing me with a copy of this book.
She defied them with survival.
Prisoner 43-1-12 contends with the voices of her past, present, and future in the war-altered world of Illirium. From a ranch outside a rural town, to a prison formed from city ruins, and a wilderness marked by supernatural encounters, There was Music explores the struggle between identity and the cost of survival, the power of music and the hope of healing.