It will come as no surprise to those who see my collection of books that I love fantasy romance novels. But whilst Stephanie Garber’s Once Upon A Broken Heart has a truly stunning front cover, I felt as though the material inside didn’t massively live up to the colourful exterior. (I know, I know, the old adage never judge a book by its cover rings rather true here…).
Whilst this book is a spin off, focusing on some side characters in Garber’s popular Caraval series, I’ve never read the latter. Still, I hoped there would be a whole new world to explore that wouldn’t hinder me too much, even without knowing any of the characters.
I’m not sure I was right.
This is a sweet book that borders on the saccharine, and is one packed full of magic. Grand, romantic sweeping scenes of balls and castles and magical adventure are interwoven together, but this is a book where all of the characters are a little too perfect for my liking. …Perhaps this is because I like my characters with a few more warts and flaws.
Protagonist and orphan girl Evangeline Fox, brokenhearted that her love is in love with another, decides to strike a deal with the wicked Prince of Hearts – a Fate (a capricious god-like creature) known for killing with a single kiss. But in exchange for his help to win her love back, he asks for three kisses to be given at a time and place of his choosing.
Of course, with a precis like this, you know nothing is ever going to be as simple as it seems.
“All stories are made of both truths and lies, […] What matters is the way that we believe in them.”
A point that is hammered home throughout the book, is that Evangeline has rose-gold hair. And as any anime trope might tell you, it’s always the ones with different coloured hair who often have the keys to unlock plot. Yawn. In fact, the protagonist was one of my least liked characters in the book – I found her too naive and gullible to truly care about what was going on in her story.
Through events that unfold early on in the narrative, as she suddenly becomes a celebrated hero and is sent up to visit the Magnificent North to attend Nocte Neverending – a ball where the Crown Prince must find his bride – a lot of the plot revolved around fairly cut and dry fantasy tropes. There are multiple love interests. A step-sister who shies out of the limelight (although there are some interesting, if not predictable, reveals about her later on). Some mystery surrounding the brother to the future king.
All this, and then – lo and behold – Evangeline finds out she might well be the one to break a prophecy that has ties to some – really quite interesting – dark Fate history. History I actually really wanted to know more about.
“The fates weren’t dangerous because they were evil; the fates were dangerous because they couldn’t tell the difference between evil and good.”
What Garber does well, however, is that she makes what might just be a whimsical fairytale world both magically light and horrifically dark.
Her world building was something that I really enjoyed, particularly the focus on the different types of Fates and their abilities. As a character, Jacks, the Prince of Hearts, was my favourite – a delightfully complex character with oodles of charm and sarcasm, and just as manipulative and cruel as everyone makes him out to be. Apart from that, however, everyone else paled in comparison.
Yet, I felt that this book could have benefitted from narrowing in on certain parts of the world that were otherwise simply glossed over. There’s a week where Fates reign merry hell on the city Evanegeline lives in whilst she’s turned to stone which is then barely mentioned again. What about the sexy, scary vampires that show up for all of one chapter? Or the Fate whose tears kill people?
Not to mention any of the lore drop behind the prophecy, as whilst it was intriguing, the whole reveal felt a little shoehorned in. Some characters I really wanted to know more about appeared for all of half a chapter.
But knowing that there is a sequel in The Ballad of Neverafter, I shall seek out the answers with baited breath.
A saccharine fantasy romance with almost too-perfect characters who do little to draw you in. The one saving grace is its world building and snarky, manipulative ‘antihero’, Jacks. I’ll give the second book a go… but this is probably better if you know more about the world already.