[Book Review] Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore // a magic that reaches across five hundred years

I first read an Anna-Marie McLemore book last year, when I finally finished Wild Beauty. I found myself utterly enchanted, and determined to read more of their books.

Read on to find out what I loved so much about this incredibly moving and lyrically-written book!

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Title: Dark and Deepest Red

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Age Range: Young Adult

Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Magical Realism, Fantasy

Rating: 5/5


Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.

Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.

Content warnings: racism, xenophobia, transphobia, death

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“What we are, they have made it a crime in our own country. So we will go somewhere no one knows us.”

“I would find a way to make sure we never had to destroy something of ourselves just to stop other people from taking it.”

“You can’t go where you want to go without knowing where you’ve been.”

“Maybe the glimmer came every year. But something this year caught on the air. It was bitter as smoke, and sweet as the raw crystals of honey. It was a current arcing between them. It was the moment that turned a solution from one color to the next, amber to red, fast as a blink. It was the slight change in chemistry that let algae blooms grow on the ocean, bright as a tide of gas flames. And he couldn’t be sure, not with his eyes closed, but for a second, he could have sworn he caught the glimmer above them flashing as red as Rosella’s shoes.”

“Exotic. The word such men use when they want to make dark-eyed women into their mistresses, or rare pale deer into their pets. A word that carries both their thrill and the sense that they are entitled to all that interests them.”

“I’m a future abuela. I keep everything in my purse.”

“She screams, loud enough that she hopes it rattles la cathédrale’s single spire. She wishes it to echo over Alsace, to the Vogesen, and to the Black Forest. She bids it to Paris and Rome, into the souls of kings and emperors, to every man who makes the law of a land he has never bent to touch. She commands it to carry across a thousand years. She wills it to reach the very ears of God, so He will know what men on this earth do in His name.”

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☕ Plot

This story connects two timelines. The first is present day Strasbourg, where teenagers Emil and Rosella find themselves not only attracted to one another, but also able to relate to each other in terms of feeling othered: Rosella and her family are Latinx, and Emil and his family are Romani. Rosella’s family are known making beautiful, incomparable shoes – especially red shoes. Meanwhile, five hundred years ago Emil’s ancestors were supposedly run out of town for a dancing fever that caused women to dance until they dropped dead of exhaustion. When Rosella makes a pair of red shoes that weld themselves to her feet, they discover that the truth of what happened all those centuries ago might be the key to saving Rosella from dancing to her death.

Although some would accuse the story of having no plot, I would argue that the book’s lack of a rigidly structured plot is actually its greatest strength. The events of five hundred years ago, when the dancing fever struck Strasbourg, and the curse of the red shoes that forces Rosella in present-day to keep dancing, provide guideposts for the characters to follow. But in the end, its the characters motivations, decisions, discoveries, and epiphanies that drive the story forward. This allows for a more in-depth examination of the book’s themes – xenophobia, racism, prejudice, and the strength to soldier on in a world that has no room for you – than a more plot-focused story would have had.

I particularly adored the juxtaposition of two sets of people facing prejudice. A hundred years ago you had Lavinia, a Romani; and Alifair, a trans boy Lavinia and her aunt take in and who she grows up with. In present day, there is Rosella and Emil, whose family backgrounds of being Latinx and Romani separate them on an emotional and psychological level from their peers. It was a great way to show that prejudice and bigotry hasn’t really died out – it’s just metamorphosed into different, more insidious ways.

On the flip and more positive side, seeing both what happened in Strasbourg in the past and the present also shows us that throughout history up until today, there have – and always will be – people who are just like us, people of colour, queer people, people of various religions and cultures and all walks of life not accepted by the status quo, and that sometimes all it takes is for us to stand together to make a difference.

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☕ Writing ☕

Anna-Marie McLemore is the G.O.A.T. of beautiful, poetic, unapologetically Latinx YA. Their usual lyrical writing style lends itself well to this beautiful tale of marginalised folks overcoming oppression, bigotry, and prejudice. This book makes heavy use of countryside imagery, descriptions of colour palettes and architecture, and bucolic metaphor, all of which makes it quite a visual treat for the reader to feast on.

I’ve always maintained there are two sorts of readers who are perfect for Anna-Marie McLemore’s style of writing: those who enjoy poetic prose, and those who like analysing figures of speech. Dark and Deepest Red is no different. Rather than outright telling us what we should be feeling about a certain passage or event, we are lead to that conclusion by the sheer emotion the author pours into the surrounding scenery. 

This is very much a book that relies on symbolism, and best of all, it’s symbolism done well.

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Dark and Deepest Red revolves around four characters, two of which live in present-day Strasbourg, and two of whom are in the year 1518. Although five hundred years separate both sets of characters, their lives and fates are inextricably intertwined.

In the present day, we have the following:

  • Rosella – The daughter of Latinx shoemakers whose wares are wanted by everyone in town. When a pair of red shoes seal themselves to her feet and forces her to dance, she has to band together with her best friend Emil, whose ancestors may have the answer.
  • Emil – A Romani boy who feels unable to relate to his classmates due to his heritage, except for Rosella, because her own family’s practices are considered strange by their peers as well. But emotions and an ability to relate to feeling othered are not the only things bothering them.

And from 1518 Strasbourg, we have:

  • Lala – A Romani girl, Emil’s ancestor, who lives with her aunt and hides her Romani heritage for fear of being executed or exiled. Her life is a constant balancing act of wanting to embrace her Romani heritage and also keep her loved ones safe.
  • Alifair – A trans boy that Lala and her aunt take in, and with whom Lala slowly begins to fall in love. He seems to know the forest in and out and is utterly devoted to Lala, even at the cost of his own safety.

Each of these characters bring something unique and wondrous to the story. The difficulty with having multiple main characters is that sometimes the reader begins to care more about one character or another. This definitely wasn’t the case with this book. I adored them all, rooted for them all, and was so happy when everyone got their happy ending.

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☕ Overall

Books that feature POC – especially queer POC – finding happiness and safety and health and warmth are where it’s at in 2020. Reading this book and seeing everything turn out okay for everyone, after such a harrowing journey through brilliant writing, was an absolutely beautiful and healing experience. Read this book if you want to see queer POC, both in medieval and in present times, get the happy endings they deserve!

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What did you think?

☕Do you enjoy magical realism as a genre?
☕ Have you read this book? What did you think?
☕ What’s your favourite Anna-Marie McLemore book?

And don’t forget, if you like my content, consider buying me a coffee, donating to my PayPal, or using my Amazon affiliate links to purchase this book, at no additional cost to you!

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3 thoughts on “[Book Review] Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore // a magic that reaches across five hundred years

  1. Pingback: Wrap-up: February – reads rainbow

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