“Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—but one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey. Golden child Delilah is a legend at exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. But Delilah doesn’t know that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to unseat Delilah for the scholarship. After all, it would lock in Maria’s attendance at Stanford—and assure her and Lily four more years in a shared dorm room.
Together, Maria and Lily harness the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school. But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what’s imagined, the girls must attempt to put a stop to the chilling series of events they’ve accidentally set in motion.”
My Thoughts: Some people have likened As I Descended to a lesbian retelling of Macbeth. While Ms. Talley has already confirmed that it is indeed a retelling of this famous Shakespeare play, to call it a lesbian version of it seems odd and misleading. Yes, the two main characters happen to be in a lesbian relationship, but the diversity does not stop there. Included among the cast of characters are several LGBTQA students, students of different race and religion, and students with special needs. To generalize it to just one small subgenre misses the point of the novel.
As it is a faithful retelling of Macbeth, anyone who remembers the play’s plot will know how the story ends. The use of an old slaveholding plantation as the setting of the school adds to the story’s atmosphere as it allows Ms. Talley to draw upon the unhappy history of the plantation as an appropriate guise for the later hauntings. It is easy to match the modern-day character with their Shakespearean counterpart, and the tale stays true to the original in as much as a school scholarship can stand in the stead of a kingdom and a boarding school is a substitute for various castles.
The story itself is eerie in all the right places and intense in others. Maria’s descent into madness is particularly important not so much as it is what happens to Macbeth but more because the pressure to be the very best at any school these days is higher than most adults realize. Those scenes show just how easy that pressure can cause someone to cross the fine line between brilliance and insanity even without resorting to violence.
The one major quibble within As I Descended is the fact that while this is a novel that celebrates diversity by including so many diverse characters in its plot, these same diverse characters are not the ones who obtain happy endings to their story arcs. In point of fact, Maria’s nemesis is a blond-haired, blue-eyed wealthy white girl. While this may not have been deliberate on Ms. Talley’s part, it is still a deflating oversight as it changes her message from one of inclusivity to one of traditional racial norms.
As I Descended is a fast read not only because the story is familiar but also because the tension makes this a novel you do not want to stop reading. There is no character development and very little in the way of extraneous set building, so the characters and the setting remain one-dimensional. Given that it is a retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, it is likely that this lack of development is purposeful; there is no need for extraneous descriptions or the fleshing out of characters when one already knows what is going to happen to them. While the inclusion of a very diverse group of students is a welcome addition to any novel, one wishes that this same group of students could have had happier endings if only to provide more examples of strong POC or LGBQTA characters. The targeted audience will enjoy a glimpse into the lives of privileged students as well as the apparent supernatural happenings at the school. Adults are better served sticking with the original; after all, it is difficult to do better than the Bard.