Audiobook Review: Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tantor Audio (September 5, 2020)
Length: 4 hrs and 20 mins
Narrator: Heather Wilds
At just over 130 pages in print form which is about 4 and a half hours in audio, Yellow Jessamine is a lightweight novella—which probably isn’t always the best format to judge a writer, I am aware. Still, I think it’s pretty safe to say Caitlin Starling’s style isn’t for me; I wasn’t too crazy for her debut novel The Luminous Dead either but was hoping that this one would strike a better chord with me, but in some ways it was even more confusing and frustrating.
Evelyn Perdanu is the protagonist of this tale. As heir to her family’s lucrative shipping business, she’s rich, she’s powerful, and she knows how to manage her people. But when one of her ships arrive to the port of Delphinium, carrying a strange illness, her nerves are rattled and she begins to suspect there may be more to the story. She’s all that’s left of her family now, her city is dying, and now it appears she may be the target of something sinister.
Then there’s the way the new disease spreads, striking its victims with a feverish craze before making them fall catatonic. Even as Evelyn is trying to convince the authorities that the outbreak is not her company’s fault, more and more are falling ill. To a one, they turn their fierce fixation on her, driving her into hiding. Frightened and cornered, Evelyn is left with no choice but to dig into her own past, trying to find the connections between her family’s checkered history and the chaos unfolding in the city.
Looking back, for a story that kicked off with such fascination and intensity, it amazed me how quickly everything shifted in the opposite direction. First off, the novella format is simply too limiting for what the author was trying to accomplish, holding down what could have been truly amazing. Listening to the audiobook, I thoroughly enjoyed the setup of the first hour or so, but soon after that, the plot went downhill as Starling tried to do too much too quickly. It feels bad saying this too, because it’s clear she had a bigger vision for Yellow Jessamine, aptly titled for the beautiful but highly poisonous flower, considering the story’s themes.
But while the book’s second half may have been packed to the gills with rich detail, I struggled to make heads or tails out of most of it. The few threads I was able to follow also weakened over time due to the deluge of newly introduced information that ultimately amounted to filler. Evelyn’s character ended up being such a mess, giving me flashbacks to Gyre in The Luminous Dead, another one of Starling’s characters whose personality seemed to be all over the map. The worst part was that Evelyn’s relationship with her maid Violetta also suffered, and what originally had the potential to mature into an emotionally deep romance instead fell flat and came across like a perfunctory nod towards diversity and representation.
By the time Yellow Jessamine was over, it had nearly lost me completely, and the final disappointment was the lack of horror elements, unless you counted weird as horror. This might also have something to do with that the fact the book was too short and strange to develop any real sense of atmosphere. The world-building was sparse, and while Delphinium as a setting would make a solid foundation for future stories, there was insufficient description in this tale to make any of the city’s history or politics convincing.
That said, you could arguably view this novella as a character study and an introspective exploration of emotion, and perhaps find value in it from that perspective. In that case, Evelyn would have been a compelling subject, though as I said, I found too much about her personality contradictory. If the story had meant to focus on the internal conflict roiling within Evelyn, to the author’s credit I think she managed to achieve this goal by the end, even if the execution could have been better.
Had the book been longer, allowing for more improvement in these areas, I might have had a better time. Ironically though, in my review of The Luminous Dead, one of my criticisms was that it dragged on for too long and might have packed a bit more punch had the story been pared down and streamlined, so maybe Starling still needs to work on ironing out pacing issues. In sum, Yellow Jessamine had promise, but a strong start gave way to a convoluted end with lackluster plot, world, and character development.
Audiobook Comments: Heather Wilds did a great job narrating, and I enjoyed listening to her voice, which had this strong, dignified, and mesmerizing quality. The book itself was simply not my cup of tea, but it was through no fault of the narrator, whose performance was lovely.