A Darkly Beating Heartby Lindsay Smith
Published on October 25, 2016 by Roaring Brook Press
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
A time-travel story that alternates between modern day and 19th century Japan as one girl confronts the darkness lurking in her soul.
No one knows what to do with Reiko. She is full of hatred. All she can think about is how to best hurt herself and the people closest to her. After a failed suicide attempt, Reiko’s parents send her from their Seattle home to spend the summer with family in Japan to learn to control her emotions. But while visiting Kuramagi, a historic village preserved to reflect the nineteenth-century Edo period, Reiko finds herself slipping back in time into the life of Miyu, a young woman even more bent on revenge than Reiko herself. Reiko loves being Miyu, until she discovers the secret of Kuramagi village, and must face down Miyu’s demons as well as her own.
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I don’t even know where to begin with this book.
My first interaction with A Darkly Beating Heart was a Twitter chat where it was compared several times to the anime InuYasha (which, for the record, is probably my favorite anime). Yeah, you can bet I got excited.
Then I read it and I’m still wondering… WTF JUST HAPPENED.
A Darkly Beating Heart tells the story of Reiko. Raised American with Japanese heritage, she has a lot of personal issues going on (ANGER issues) and flees to Japan to escape. Not that her time there is much better as she caters to her bratty cousin Akiko. Events move forward, they end up in this historical village Kuramagi where things turn weird. Like really weird. Mega-weird.
From a writing standpoint, Smith has a easy to follow style and led the story through its paces. I can’t say it was particularly remarkable but I can’t fault it. The storytelling, however, is another matter. The world unfolds in the way I imagine a tourist would narrate a foreign country. I attribute this to the fact that a lot of people, like myself, have likely not been to Japan and this narrative provides a way to immerse oneself into the world. Instead of authentic, though, I found it a tad annoying the way phrases were thrown into large sections of pure English dialogue.
But allow me to lead you into the heart of this book and my primary reason for almost DNF-ing it at 10%: Reiko.
So I mentioned that I was told this is the perfect book for InuYasha fans. Time-traveling to feudal Japan? Sign me up! And I so wanted Reiko to be the Kagome of this story (she’s a protagonist from the anime). But Reiko wasn’t likable at all. From the very beginning she’s full of hate, anger, and a whole bowl of negativity. This book addresses a few trigger topics including suicide and self-harm so that is my warning on that front (though I think it handled them well). Reiko has a lot going on but what comes across is her anger.
Like she talks about getting her vengeance on others.
Needing that revenge.
And I say all this because if I went through this book, I would bet that her anger and need for revenge is mentioned every other page (maybe even more often). Reiko is a dark, DARK protagonist and I think it would’ve worked if the other characters hadn’t been so unlikable. You know, I could’ve been rooting for at least one of them, then. But let me break it down for you:
In modern day Japan, we have Reiko, who I’ve covered as being very angry. Akiko, her cousin who is an absolute brat and horrible person (please, the amount of times I wanted to slap her was too damn high). Mariko, Aki’s quiet sidekick who she bullies but follows her around anyway. Kenji the artist trying to keep the peace and, of course, has feelings for Rei but it only really comes up once and not in a romantic way.
In feudal Japan, there’s Miyu. She’s Rei’s counterpart and also (wait for it) full of anger and hate and seeking revenge. Rei finds herself in Miyu’s body by accident but keeps seeking it out as a release from her regular life. And for most of the book they’re the same person.
Now let’s take a moment to look at what’s happened:
We have a young woman who has serious anger issues, a mysterious violent past with both her ex-girlfriend and brother, and now she’s inhabiting the body of another seriously troubled young woman from another time. Every page shows how dangerously close Reiko is to the edge. She’s angry. She will have her revenge. She’s angrier. Soon. You must wait to take your revenge.
Over and over and over.
I felt like I was watching an anime-telenovela crossover with all the dramatic moments of “passion” in feudal Japan and murderous plotting in the present day. I’m sorry but this is neither InuYasha or Jane the Virgin so I’d like a little less of the “lets make everything go to shit all the time” please and thank you. Reiko kept escaping into the past and went unchecked in terms of her actions. And through all of this there’s this overlying idea that there’s too much unknown about what happened to Miyu (too much to really keep me invested in either character).
And then there’s the ending.
What. The. Fuck.
I just spent like 250 pages listening to how Reiko is angry (want to bet how many times I’ve mentioned that already? annoying, right?) and is planning this big revenge to get back at everyone who’s ever wronged her. And clearly Miyu has her own issues to contend with that are seeping into Reiko’s life. Then, in those last pages, suddenly everything is fixed and Reiko the angry little child she is finds a happy ending.
I’m sorry but WHAT??
I felt cheated as a reader. Instead of being a satisfying ending it was rushed and way too sudden of a change after the build-up. You want me to be in this character’s head for almost 300 pages but then she does something completely out of character… yeah, gonna notice that. And perhaps with a more drawn out ending and Reiko’s character arc being woven into the story more instead of the whiplash finale it was, I would’ve thought more of this book.
The worst part of all of this was I REALLY wanted to like this book. I tried so hard and that kept me reading despite knowing early on that it just wasn’t going to work for me. So end rant. I will certainly read other books by this author but this one’s out for the count.