Monster Girls Coming For Your Heart: The Midnight Girls by Alicia Jasinska

Posted 4th December 2021 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

The Midnight Girls by Alicia Jasinska
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Sapphic MCs, minor Muslim character, implied M/M
Published on: 28th December 2021
ISBN: 1728210011
Goodreads
four-stars

The Wicked Deep meets House of Salt and Sorrows in this new standalone YA fantasy set in a snow-cloaked kingdom where witches are burned, and two enchantresses secretly compete for the heart of a prince, only to discover that they might be falling for each other.

It's Karnawał season in the snow-cloaked Kingdom of Lechija, and from now until midnight when the church bells ring an end to Devil's Tuesday time will be marked with wintry balls and glittery disguises, cavalcades of nightly torch-lit "kuligi" sleigh-parties.

Unbeknownst to the oblivious merrymakers, two monsters join the fun, descending upon the royal city of Warszów in the guise of two innocent girls. Newfound friends and polar opposites, Zosia and Marynka seem destined to have a friendship that's stronger even than magic. But that's put to the test when they realize they both have their sights set on Lechija's pure-hearted prince. A pure heart contains immeasurable power and Marynka plans to bring the prince's back to her grandmother in order to prove herself. While Zosia is determined to take his heart and its power for her own.

When neither will sacrifice their ambitions for the other, the festivities spiral into a wild contest with both girls vying to keep the hapless prince out of the other's wicked grasp. But this isn't some remote forest village, where a hint of stray magic might go unnoticed, Warszów is the icy capital of a kingdom that enjoys watching monsters burn, and if Zosia and Marynka's innocent disguises continue to slip, their escalating rivalry might cost them not just the love they might have for each other, but both their lives.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Highlights

~gloriously monstrous monster girls
~you don’t need to eat your heart out, they’ll do it for you
~scythes are sexy now
~if the ice-masks melt, you’re soulmates
~dress to impress terrify
~Witches Do It Better
~rivals to– wait, still rivals– STILL RIVALS–

I cannot tell you how much I love the premise of two girls fighting to win the same prince’s heart…so they can eat it.

And Jasinska absolutely pulls it off. Marynka and Zosia are not-quite-witches – in fact, they’re the servants of witches; Red Jaga and Black Jaga respectively. But full-on witches, it seems, cannot touch the pure of heart – and yet it’s those pure hearts, when eaten, that strengthen a witch’s power. Which is why they take servants; girls who are born mortal, but who are given enough magic to be able to turn into monsters. To hunt and kill the pure-of-heart their mistresses desire.

To be honest, a normal human probably wouldn’t make the distinction between witches and their servants – Marynka and Zosia can ride the wind, summon fire or darkness, and transform into terrifying creatures with iron teeth and flashing claws. Even Beata, the softer servant of the gentler White Jaga, can unleash devastating light and rip soldiers to pieces with her talons.

The Jagas are sisters and competitive, always boasting about their servants, and although Marynka and Beata are friends, neither of them know Zosia as anything other than her nom-de-plume Midnight (just as Marynka is Midday and Beata is Dawn, titles that come from their mistresses’ powers). Marynka is obsessed with Midnight, in fact; when they’re sent after the same pure heart, Midnight almost always manages to get to it first and steal it away, but Marynka wins just often enough to make her fierce about it instead of resigned. It doesn’t help that Red Jaga is always criticizing Marynka for not being good enough and failing so often.

And then a prince of legendary goodness returns from exile, and all three girls are sent after him.

By the lakesides the green-skinned rusalki were busy singing sweetly with the frogs, luring men to watery graves, their voices mixing with the muezzin’s call to prayer carrying from the emerald minarets of nearby mosques.

The world Jasinska has created is heavily drawn from Polish myth and history, which I know almost nothing about – but I know that I absolutely fell in love with the kingdom of Lechija, where magic is not just believed in, but omnipresent; there are rusalkas in the lakes, and the Jagas in their forests (forests of eternal night, dawn, and midday, respectively), but there is also magic wielded by humans. The witches call this ‘divine’ magic, and it’s one of the only things that can really hurt them, but it’s woven into the fabric of human life, with priests and prophets and princes alike being able to use it, and enchant objects with it that anyone can then use. There are swords that burst into holy flame, masks of ice that melt when you see your soulmate, characters who can read the future in the stars. It’s not idyllic – Lechija is in a very tense political situation, and everyone is holding their breath lest one wrong move tip them over the edge into war – but it is really, really beautiful. It doesn’t hurt at all that Midnight Girls is set during Karnawał, which is one big carnival-holiday that allows for lots of gorgeous, opulent costumes and horse-drawn sleigh rides. The gift for description that was on full display in Jasinska’s debut The Dark Tide is given free and wonderful reign in her sophomore novel as well.

But more than anything, Midnight Girls is a character-driven story, and I will be amazed if any reader can resist Marynka and Zosia. Marynka is louder, bold and fierce and fiery; Zosia is cool and restrained and detail-oriented. The chemistry between them is instantaneous and searing, in the best take on the rivals-to-lovers trope I’ve yet seen; every time they clash, every time one of them ruins the other’s plan or chance at the prince, every time they go for each other with claws and teeth – it sizzles. But there’s more to each of them than their rivalry; Marynka is desperate for the approval of her witch, Red Jaga, whom she calls Grandmother; Zosia is just as desperate to run away from Black Jaga. Both their lives hinge on this prince’s heart; Marynka, because every failure might be the one that makes Red Jaga so fed up she kills her; and Zosia, because without the power it will give her, there’s no way she can escape Black Jaga and survive.

It’s not just about their rivalry as the servants of witches; they’re both fighting for their lives as well.

She needed her there. It went beyond desire, beyond ambition. Aiming to outdo the other girl gave Marynka a goal, a purpose, something to strive for, something to look forward to. … She hadn’t realised how much she’d come to rely on her presence. When had Midnight become so integral to her life, when had their constant clashes stopped feeling like an intrusion, a threat, and started to feel…vital.

But the rivalry is definitely a huge part of it.

Oh, how Marynka wanted to see her frustrated, furious, desperate, just once. She wanted to see her on her knees. She wanted to ruin Zosia as thoroughly as Zosia did her without even trying.

Probably my favourite aspects of both characters is their amorality – although that’s probably not the right word for it; what I love is that they revel in their monstrousness, are thrilled by their own strength and power, glory in it. Zosia is self-conscious about her monstrous form and believes it’s hideous, and she wants to stop taking hearts – but even she loves her magic, and both girls are excited, not afraid, by the other’s magic and monstrousness. They find each other’s monster-forms breathtaking and beautiful. The scene where they both see each other in those forms for the first time is one of my favourite in the book, especially because, in the same scene, we see how the regular humans react to their monstrous visages with utter horror. That contrast – the horror of normal people vs the awe and appreciation and attraction Marynka and Zosia feel at seeing each other in their full power – is just gorgeous.

Marynka stared at Zosia.

Zosia stared at Marynka.

Prince Jozef of Lechija snapped out of his trance, stared back and forth at them both, and screamed.

It underlines the girls’ otherness, how they’re different, how they don’t fit with other humans – and that makes them frightening. But because we also see each girl through the other’s eyes, we also see them as glorious and beautiful, wild and magical. Their otherness is something to celebrate; certainly something they celebrate, unrepentantly. And I just flat-out loved that so much.

These are literal monster girls who are completely unashamed of their monstrousness, and that is exactly the kind of monster girls I want.

Marynka didn’t dress to please people. She dressed to startle them, to make them uneasy. She didn’t dress so that they would look at her and see something they wanted to touch and taste. She wanted them to look upon her and be afraid. She wanted their knees to tremble when they beheld her. She wanted their voices to crack with visceral fear at her approach.

And I loved their relationship, and how it developed. I suspect some readers might get a little bit ‘hurry up and kiss already!!!’, but I found it funny and almost kind of adorable how Marynka, especially, refused to acknowledge that what she was feeling went a fair bit beyond rivalry. It’s cute! I realise they’re fighting with scythes and throwing avalanches at each other, but I’m sorry, they are cute. Even if it would be a coin toss to see which of them ripped me apart for calling them that, it’s still true. I’m a sucker for romances where the reader can see quite clearly how emotions and FEELS are developing, but the character or characters take longer to put it together, and that’s very much the case here. It’s all so believable, and intense; Jasinska builds it up carefully and deliberately, so that their falling for each other feels inevitable. It’s wonderful.

Marynka swallowed around the sudden tightness in her throat. She’d always believed Midnight thought of her as someone weak and unworthy, someone beneath notice. But now she was looking at Marynka like she truly meant what she was saying, like she really did want her to come with her. Like Marynka was a prize, as rare and unobtainable as a prince’s pure heart.

Speaking of relationships: initially, I was a bit concerned that Beata, aka Dawn, the servant of the third witch White Jaga, was going to get sidelined and forgotten about; that she’d been stuck into the story just because three is a better number than two, especially for witches and magic. But while Marynka and Zosia are absolutely the headliners, Marynka and Beata’s friendship is an important thread woven through the story. I’m not sure Marynka makes the best best friend, but events make it very clear that the relationship goes both ways; Beata may mostly serve as Marynka’s support, but when push comes to shove, Marynka is willing to do anything to help Beata and keep her from being hurt. I never got the sense that their friendship was as intense or important as the relationship between Zosia and Marynka (even before the rivalry starts to develop into something else) but it didn’t feel tacked on to the story either.

One thing that did bother me was all the politics going on in the background – Dawn, Midday and Midnight are going after a prince, so politics plays a part in the narrative, even if it’s one that’s of virtually no interest to them (after all, human politics don’t and can’t affect witches). There are a lot of overheard conversations, a few lectures-via-dialogue at the reader, tension between some of the secondary characters, and honestly? That did feel contrived and unnecessary. Especially when it’s set up as being so incredibly important to the humans…but doesn’t affect the narrative, and thus the main characters, at all. I wish it had either been made more important, so that it played a real part in the story, or removed, because as-is it’s just…meaningless clutter.

And I have to admit that I didn’t love the ending. Things are mostly resolved, but a few important things kind of aren’t. This was the case with The Dark Tide as well; I’m crossing my fingers that Jasinska is leaving herself room to write sequels, because damn it, I am pining for a Dark Tide sequel, and I would joyfully pounce on a follow up to The Midnight Girls too!

Those are pretty minor gripes, though, and the latter especially is easy to fix: buy the book, flail about how amazing it is, and then go buy Dark Tide as well. If they sell enough, we’ll get sequels – and I promise, after reading The Midnight Girls (and/or Dark Tide, tbh) you’ll want to do everything you can to make sure Jasinska gets to write more sapphic witchy books!!!

four-stars

Leave a Reply

(Enter your URL then click here to include a link to one of your blog posts.)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.