ARC Review • Beyond the Black Door // A.M. Strickland

Kamai was warned never to open the black door, but she didn’t listen …

Everyone has a soul. Some are beautiful gardens, others are frightening dungeons. Soulwalkers―like Kamai and her mother―can journey into other people’s souls while they sleep. But no matter where Kamai visits, she sees the black door. It follows her into every soul, and her mother has told her to never, ever open it.

When Kamai touches the door, it is warm and beating, like it has a pulse. When she puts her ear to it, she hears her own name whispered from the other side. And when tragedy strikes, Kamai does the unthinkable: she opens the door.

A.M. Strickland’s imaginative dark fantasy features court intrigue and romance, a main character coming to terms with her asexuality, and twists and turns as a seductive mystery unfolds that endangers not just Kamai’s own soul, but the entire kingdom …

GoodreadsThe Book Depository // Release • Oct 29th, 2019

Dark fantasy. Morally grey, Slytherin characters. Court intrigue. #Ownvoices ace rep. Soulwalking. Phantom of the Opera atmosphere. Fancy dresses. Endless castles. Is there any doubt why I was intrigued by Beyond a Black Door?

“Books were doors I was allowed to open with the flick of my wrist… unlike the black door.”

From the very first page, I found myself transported into Kamai’s world. The idea of soulwalking and this haunting, forbidden Black Door full of possibilities was beguiling. I was drawn in instantly but as the story progressed, the plot meandered and so did my interest. There was no end goal in sight. We were plagued with repetitive conversations and inner dialogue that achieved nothing.

There was something about this world that never made it feel real. I don’t know whether it was the promise of court intrigue that failed to deliver but the scale was off. To explain in the vaguest of terms, the only way you can raise the stakes so high is to convince us of the consequences. We need to know about this world, its people and the politics to understand the scope of the damage that could be caused by this Big Bad Thing. If you have that, you give us a sense of urgency to prevent this Thing from happening. Without it, you give us a shallow, underdeveloped villain with shaky motivations and no stakes. Strickland didn’t capture that looming dread for me. I could barely envision the size of the secret societies, let alone how they operated or what threat they truly posed. It really affected my investment.

It properly shocked me, though! I never knew what was going to come next, which I say with an abnormal amount of enthusiasm because my brain has zero chill and always guesses the ending. Always.

I also loved the world-building. While I wanted more from certain aspects, the way that everything tied together through this world’s religion was brilliant. It added so much detail and little moments that helped develop my understanding of the characters. And there was something so damn beautiful about it? I would love a Language of Thorns-style book about it. I think Strickland’s writing would work wonders for that.

Also, the characters. I loved Kamai and Kihan and Zereni, simple and plain as that. Their banter & friendships absolutely made this story for me.

… but the romance was Yikes. Oh boy. When I first heard villain romance, I came running but as the story progressed, I kind of assumed Kihan was going to be the love interest and forgot about it. I shouldn’t have because I was not prepared for what was delivered. Here’s the thing, for me ‘villian romance’ does not equal romanticised abuse. I know there’s people out there who legitimately ship Alina x the Darkling but I’m not here for that dynamic. At all. I enjoy reading about villains, sure, but I don’t enjoy reading about abusive, creepy men grooming a child… so I’ll leave it at that.

I genuinely thought Kihan was going to be the love interest and I was a tad hesitant about that even. Kamai is a month or so underage when they met and Kihan is her bodyguard but I would much prefer to read about that kind of ‘taboo’ romance.

“I simply adore the delicate way you put things. How you cover the truth in softness to make it less sharp. Rose blossoms over thorns.”

A+ representation. However, all of that was mostly saved by way Strickland tackled sexuality and gender. It was difficult to read about characters working through their internalised acemisia for sure but it was wonderfully done. The emphasis placed on allowing yourself the time to come out to yourself and the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive people was impeccable. 

“I raised my chin, refusing to feel ashamed… acknowledgement and support had already changed something within me. I felt stronger, lighter… brighter. Like a new moon floating in the sky, cloaked in secretive darkness, but with a glowing core. Not empty. Not broken. Whole and wholly myself.”

I have never read about a trans character who purposefully uses incorrect pronouns because they are not ready to come out yet. It was difficult to see Kihan being misgendered but I also believe it is incredibly important to have different experiences and all walks of life represented. A.M. Strickland talked more about their decision to write Kihan’s journey this way in a Twitter thread.

It felt like a folktale. There is something about Strickland’s writing that felt like being read a fairytale. She made it feel like Kamai’s journey was now a legend being retold as a bedtime story. It created this lush, magical atmosphere cloaked with an irresistible eeriness… but it also disconnected me from the characters. I never felt like I was living the story alongside Kamai. I found myself upsettingly disengaged.

Overall? There were aspects of Beyond the Black Door that I adored and aspects I rather disliked. The entire book played a tug-of-war with my emotions. I was put off by the writing style and the romance almost got to me, but it was ultimately the characters and the ornate world-building that made me adore it so. If you’re looking for a queer fantasy this spooky season, look no further.

“Steel in someone’s hand can be used for good or ill; it is not for the blacksmith to decide. He creates the weapon, not what is done with it”

Review copy provided through Edelweiss in exchange of an honest review.

▷  Trigger Warnings & Representation :

Representation: Kamai (mc) is demi-biromantic & ace; Vehyn (li) is ace; Kalin (sc) is trans & ace; Zereni (sc) is gay & poc; Hallan & Razim (scs) are poc; queer & poc scs.

Trigger warnings for ableist language, internalised acemisia (central theme), transmisia, queermisia, misgendering, misogyny, sex worker shaming, sexual harassment, sex work & underaged sex work discussed, emotional abuse, cheating, anxiety attack, nightmares, suicide attempt, suicide & self-immolation discussed, alcohol consumption, drugging w/o consent, pregnancy due to partner’s manipulation of birth control w/o consent, blood depiction, grief depiction, death of a mother (op), death of a stepfather, murder, attempted murder, stabbing, knife violence, strangulation, kidnapping, fire, and imprisonment mentioned.

▷ Let’s Talk

what is your favourite queer fantasy? i have too many to even narrow it down to a top ten so maybe just let me a recent favourite? i love that we are finally seeing more and more identities and experiences repped in sff, and i have a good feeling 2020 will truly be a blessing.

Please note that this post uses affiliate links and quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof copy subject to change.

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