Love, Death, and The Gothic in Belladonna by Adalyn Grace

It’s a culmination of the last couple of years—as well as the last couple of months for me, personally—that’s led to me being drawn to books hyperfocused on death. You don’t need to look far lately to find books with themes on grief, death, and horror, especially in the YA genre. There’s a boom happening here with standouts across all genres, and Adalyn Grace’s Belladonna is an enticing romantic gothic fantasy that carves out its own space among the macabre.

Signa Farrow has lived nineteen years as an orphan, passed around from guardian to guardian. Each was more interested in her wealth than the last, and each of them met an untimely end. Rumors abound that Signa is cursed, a witch, that she is followed by death… and they’re not exactly wrong. For as long as she can remember, Sigma not only can see Death; she’s unable to die. Sigma fears what this means about her and hates Death for his constant interference in her life.

After her Aunt traumatically dies, Sigma is asked to live with the only family she has left: the rich, eccentric Hawthorns. The family lives on the Thorn Grove estate, and when Sigma arrives, she realizes this family is haunted by death, too. The patriarch, Elijah, mourns his recently deceased wife, Lillian. His son, Percy, desperately wants the power to keep his family’s reputation from irreparable damage, and Elijah’s daughter, Blythe, seems to be on death’s doorstep. Even odder, she’s suffering from the same mysterious illness that took Lillian. As Sigma gets to know the family, she must balance the desire to finally become part of the society that’s been out of her grasp and the most horrifying realization: Lillian was murdered, and Sigma’s bond with Death is the only thing that can save Blythe from the same fate.

Belladonna by Adalyn Grace is part romance, part murder mystery, part 1800s society games, and all gothic fantasy. It’s a hard balance to strike, but Grace does a good job knowing when to jump from one moment to another. One of the ways Grace keeps a handle on the many moving parts of her novel is the protagonist, Sigma.

The nineteen year old lead has had to contend with a lot of strife, and this has turned her into a compelling character to read. Sigma is funny, she overthinks, and she finds herself overwhelmed by all the changes around her, especially when it comes to her romantic choices. As much as this is a gothic fantasy, this story is also a romance. Sigma finds herself torn between her feelings for the stable boy, Silas, who’s always there to lend a helping hand, and her feelings for Death himself. I will admit that I didn’t expect Death to be one of the romantic interests of this story at first. I’m not the biggest fan of stories with love interests that have known the protagonist from infancy – the vibes there tend to be quite icky – but Grace manages the development of this potential relationship with, well, grace. Sigma’s hatred and contempt for Death give the two this tense dynamic to work from, and it leaves the reader questioning for much of the book whether or not Death is simply doing his job or if he cares for Sigma.

And then there’s Silas. Dry, funny, strong, and mysterious, Silas helps Sigma in the world of the living as she begins to unravel the intricacies of Lillian’s murder. The banter between the two is a delight to read, and Sigma, who has never spent time around men her age, having awkward moments where she realizes, “Oh, this guy is attractive” at the most inopportune moments was a lot of fun to read. We get to learn more about Silas as the story develops, and I’ll admit that I did not see the twist involving Silas coming. I love a good twist that makes sense as soon as you read it, and Grace delivered here.

Grace fleshes out the world at Thorn Grove with a compelling cast of characters. Elijah ignores his grief by throwing lavish parties, much to the annoyance of his serious son, Percy. Sigma and Percy spend a lot of time together through Sigma’s lessons on how to come out to society and when the two of them start to look into who—and what—is responsible for Blythe’s illness. Blythe became one of my favorite characters in the book. There’s a ferocity to her character that isn’t dimmed as she grows sicker and watching her friendship develop with her cousin Sigma was something I enjoyed. Plus, Blythe’s views on marriage and coming out to society are very relatable. I, too, want to ride my horse and do whatever I want, whenever I want, with no man to tell me what to do.

The other aspect of this story that can’t go without discussion is the fantasy element. Sigma can see Death, and she also begins to realize early on that when she’s in the space between the living and the dead, she also has his powers. This realization comes at the beginning of the book and is one of the many puzzle pieces that come together to give us a gripping finale. At two thirds through the book, the characters think they have solved the mystery and will save Blythe. As a reader with a chunk of book left in front of us, we know that can’t possibly be the case, and the spiral that comes through the rest of the story is tough to put down. As Sigma grows into her powers and becomes closer to Death than she ever thought possible, the story becomes more addictive.

When I first picked up Belladonna, I didn’t realize it was going to be the start of a series. As I got to the end of the book, I didn’t think we needed a second installment—but then Grace, in the last few moments, introduces a character and a twist that has me hungry for book two. The first puzzle is finished and wrapped up in a neat little bow, but Grace promises us more mysteries to come. If you’re looking for a story with gothic vibes, twists, and ghosts, this book is for you.

Belladonna is published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers.

Cassie Schulz (she/they) is an indie bookseller and event coordinator with Brazos Bookstore, as well as a primary school teacher, performer, and general queer distaster. You can find them on Twitter and IG @pineappleramble where they tweet about books, musicals, cats, and upcoming writings.


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