“But time will slowly heal you, as it is doing for me. There are good days and there are difficult days. Your grief will never fully fade; it will always be with you–a shadow you carry in your soul–but it will become fainter as your life becomes brighter.”
Picture this: a city that could be London during the height of World War II, in a world where magic exists and ancient gods have been slumbering for centuries beneath the ground. Now, imagine two of these gods have awoken and turned against one another, inciting a war and using humans as their pawns. Monsters have replaced airplanes. Men and women are drafted to fight by the siren call of a god. And in the trenches of the battlefield, mankind slaughters each other while bombs fall and gas poisons the air, killing civilians and soldiers alike. This is the world that Rebecca Ross has created for her latest YA novel, Divine Rivals.
We follow Iris Winnow and Roman Kitt, rival journalists working for the same paper and competing for the coveted role of columnist. When we first meet our ‘divine rivals,’ we’re given the impression that they couldn’t come from more different worlds. Iris’s brother has joined the war, leaving her alone to support their alcoholic mother, while Roman lives the seemingly luxurious life of the upper crust. But when tragedy strikes and Iris finds herself with no one to turn to, this unlikely pair will discover that they have more in common than they thought.
As a way of coping, Iris begins writing letters to her brother and then sliding them under the wardrobe door. But when she opens the door, the letters have vanished. When Roman finds letters appearing in his room, he immediately identifies the mystery writer as Iris and sends her an anonymous reply. And thus they begin a strange sort of friendship, confiding secrets, dreams, and fears that they wouldn’t dare tell anyone else.
This is, first and foremost, a romance book. A classic tale of enemies-to-lovers, it’s as if You’ve Got Mail had a baby with Howl’s Moving Castle, and then spoonfed it Saving Private Ryan. But, despite the beautiful prose and the clever world-building, for me this one missed the mark.
If you haven’t already read Ross’s Elements of Cadence series, I highly suggest you drop everything and do that now. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that entranced me in such a way that I literally did not eat or sleep until I turned the last page. And given Ross’s reputation and my personal experience with the Elements duology, I had high hopes for Divine Rivals. Instead, I found myself disappointed.
Let me clarify by stating that this is by no means a ‘bad book.’ Ross is a strong writer, and she portrays the grief and struggles of Iris and Roman in a way that is raw and poignant. But sometimes the letters and the conversations left me feeling like she was trying too hard to build on the romance. It felt rushed and unnatural, and I realized I cared less about their burgeoning relationship and more about the world they lived in. I wanted more backstory on the gods and their role in society. I wanted more action. More character development outside of the constant drama of their romance. Even reading some of the letters had me rolling my eyes. It can be hard to take fantasy with a grain of salt, but I have a hard time believing teenagers would be so sappy and poetic in their correspondence, even in the 1940s.
There were several characters that felt like placeholders. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to care about them, or if they merely served as fillers for a world that otherwise revolved only around Iris and Roman. I almost wonder if it would have been better for Divine Rivals to be written as a purely epistolary novel–thereby eliminating the need to have a fully fleshed-out cast, and instead focusing on our star-crossed lovers.
Based on the surplus of reviews filled with praise, perhaps I am too harsh a critic. For someone looking for a scoop of romance, with a sprinkle of magic and a dusting of action, this would make an excellent read. It’s fun, it’s quick, and we can be comforted with the knowledge that a sequel is on the way. And because I have faith in Ross, I am hopeful that the second book will give me what I felt was missing in the first. The cliffhanger of an ending certainly seems to pave the way for answering many of my questions, and I look forward to seeing how Ross develops the journey of Iris and Roman and the dangerous world they call home.