The Lily Cafe is thrilled to participate in the book blog tour for The Unwilling by Kelly Braffet.
Title: The Unwilling
Author: Kelly Braffet
Publication date: February 11, 2020
Summary: Judah’s sole job in life is to not die. To die would mean certain death for the Lord of the City’s heir. Born on the same night, Judah and Gavin share an incredible bond: they experience each other’s emotions and physical ails as though they were their own. If one is injured, the other displays the same injury. Judah is a young woman with no family, a foundling taken in at birth, a young woman Lord Elban, Gavin’s father, detests but cannot rid himself of. Instead, he seeks to use her and confine her to the House. Defiant, but knowing the consequences, Judah only seeks to make her life more bearable. Outside the House, the city is destitute, laborers forced to work shifts that stretch for days, families scraping by day to day, food scarce and medical care nearly impossible to obtain. Nathaniel Clare seems like an answer of sorts, but his main goal is to get into the House, get close to Judah, and use her to save his own people. At the same time, he seeks to punish Lord Elban and the last of his line.
I was drawn to this book because of the bond between Judah and Gavin. I found myself to be incredibly curious about it and their roles as Gavin is meant to be the next Lord of the City and Judah is essentially a nobody, but who plays an important role. I thought this would be an interesting book; I was unprepared for how swept away I was and for how dark it quickly became.
The Unwilling is, more or less, simply listed as being fantasy, but I tend to think it leans more heavily towards dark fantasy. Yes, it touches on difficult topics. No, it is not easy to read. Instances of abuse, child abuse, torture, violent death, and more abound in these pages. It is not an easy read, and I think readers need to be fully warned that some of the content is not easy and may indeed be stomach churning. Some of the reviews I’ve read have mentioned them and those reviewers were not inclined to enjoy the book, for good reason. However, from what I read in those reviews, I didn’t think it could be better or worse than what I read in The Dark Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop when I was a teen.
Yes, there are triggering scenes and topics. No, it is not easy to read. Yes, go into this book with caution. Yes, look beyond these scenes for an intriguing dark fantasy.
The Characters: An Incredible, Unlikely Quartet
I adore books that involve a group of characters. I particularly enjoy trios and quartets, so was quite pleased to be introduced to the quartet early on. Not only are there Judah and Gavin, but also Gavin’s younger brother Theron and Gavin’s intended Elly. They were essentially raised together, in the same small apartment in the House. Though Judah and Gavin are the ones with the unnatural bond, all four of them share a close bond and their loyalty to each other throughout the book is heartwarming.
Each character was given their own unique personality. They were each different, but blended together incredibly well. I loved how consistent they were and that they still managed to grow and evolve while retaining what made them them. They felt like real people. I couldn’t help but be swept away by their stories, wanting to know more about them and how they managed to navigate the politics of the House.
A fifth major character is introduced later on: Nathaniel Clare. Groomed for a certain role, he knew nothing else, but a part of him still longed to do more and to find safety. When he was first introduced, he seemed reserved and dutiful. But he quickly grew into a more complicated character, one wanting to help others while also trying to fulfill the role he was raised for. Through him, the reader gets to know the city and the extreme poverty it lies in. We also get a culture outside of the city, one that is inexplicably tied to the city, but is, at the same time, far removed from it. I didn’t find him to be quite as interesting. He came off as more dutiful, so was less colorful than the quartet in the House, but his perspective opened up the world.
The Setting: The City and the House
I usually enjoy stories with movement in it, but this one doesn’t really go beyond the city and the House. I didn’t mind, though, as the politics inside the House added a great deal of court intrigue, and the structure itself sounded like a madhouse, what with additions haphazardly built upon it and each other. The city just made me sad. It was depressing and, clearly, everyone lived in extreme poverty. Workers had days long shifts, children couldn’t afford to go to school, food was scarce, and, overall, all of the people suffered but tried to make the most of it and hold onto their pride.
Overall, the city and the House felt cold and forbidding. They certainly aren’t the kinds of places I would want to visit, but I couldn’t stop reading. They were the perfect backdrops for the story and really helped showcase the desperation, the lack of choice, and the sheer flamboyance of the court. It clearly showed the division between the classes, which was incredibly stark and unforgiving.
The Plot: Focus on the Characters
This isn’t a quick 300-something page novel that jumps right in and gets to the meat of the story. No, this is slow and long. It takes its time and, while some might say it’s too slow, I think it really showed the development of each of the main characters. The pages, especially in the first half, are littered with bits and pieces and threads that play a role later on.
This is the story of four people who were either born into or sold into specific roles: the foundling, the heir, the second son, and the future wife of the heir. Life happens around them and they must adapt, pushed to grow, mature, and learn how to adjust. While it was slow going, it really highlighted their growth. I don’t feel the focus was so much on the story as it was on the characters, so I liked that it was slow, I liked that I really got to know the characters, and I loved that I could see them change in response to events in the story so they could get to the points they were at at the end of the book.
The first half of the book felt more centered around court intrigue, which was complex and intriguing. There wasn’t a ton of movement in the story, but, honestly, I didn’t really care about where the story was going. I was swept up in the intrigue, in the machinations of the courtiers and how it impacted Judah, Gavin, Theron, and Elly. There was so much going on, so many bits and pieces dropped all over the place. It felt like layer after layer building up to something. And then the second half started and what I expected didn’t happen at all. The focus turned more to how the four main characters adjusted and responded, and to the reason why Nathaniel was in the city in the first place. I must admit it was a little jarring, but I found it easy to be swept up again in their struggles against an even starker background.
Overall, I found the story to be intriguing. I liked that it was more focused on the characters. What I wasn’t so fond of was the unanswered questions and unfinished threads left at the end. There were things I wanted to know that were never really answered. There were also new questions that were brought up during the last pages. As far as I know, this is a standalone. If that’s true, I feel the ending was a little disappointing. I felt too much was left up to the reader to decide, but there wasn’t quite enough information to figure it out.
Overall: Sometimes Uncomfortable, Often Entertaining
I enjoyed this novel. I wanted to keep reading it. I found myself to be swept up in the lives of the characters and wanted to know more about the world. There’s a greater world beyond the city that was touched on, but the city and the House were just so fascinating that I didn’t really care. The characters were interesting and well-crafted. The story they told was complex and not quite what I expected. It took a turn I didn’t see coming and, somehow, it felt more sinister than what I had thought would happen. There were a few things about the ending that left me dissatisfied, but, overall, I enjoyed this book. As I mentioned earlier, there are some uncomfortable topics like torture and abuse, but, if you can look past it, it’s possible to see how integral they were to the story and the characters’ development to create an incredible fantasy that’s far from pretty ballgowns and fairies.
How many cups of tea will you need?
4 cups will do nicely
About Kelly Braffet
Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels Save Yourself, Last Seen Leaving and Josie & Jack.
Her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, and several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives in upstate New York with her husband, the author Owen King. A lifelong reader of speculative fiction, the idea for The Unwilling originally came to her in college; twenty years later, it’s her first fantasy novel. Visit her at kellybraffet.com.
Purchase this book
Oblong Books (signed, personalized preorders)
Connect with Kelly Braffet
Thank you to Justine Sha and MIRA for a free e-copy for review as well as the opportunity to participate in this book blog tour. All opinions expressed are my own.