Book Review: The Phantom’s Apprentice

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Title: The Phantom’s Apprentice
Author:
 Heather Webb
Genre: Historical Fiction
Version: ARC – eBook (Uncorrected Proof)
Page Count: 350
Publisher: Sonnet Press
Synopsis: GoodReads
Notable Notables: A stronger reimagining of a beloved female character
Recommended Readers: Those interested in trying a new Phantom of the Opera retelling
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Thank you, NetGalley, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This book held so much promise for me, but man, did it let me down in the end. The cover’s so gorgeous, too. Why must the pretty ones do us so dirty?

I’m a big fan of The Phantom of the Opera. I think the only major retelling I’ve yet to experience is Susan Kay’s Phantom (it’s on my to-read list) and that godawful The Phantom of Manhattan that Love Never Dies is based on (hard pass on both of those). The Joel Schumacher film with Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler was my first exposure, followed by the Gaston Leroux novel and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage production. And the fanfiction! Don’t get me started on the fanfiction…

Each time I’ve visited the Paris Opera House, I’ve felt more and more enamored with this gothic tale, of the characters, the pageantry, the music, and, of course, the haunted, doomed relationship between Christine Daaé and her Angel of Music.

The Phantom’s Apprentice by Heather Webb promised another magical take on the classic tale, one where Christine Daaé does not remain passive and allow all these men who have asserted themselves into her life to control her. A Christine who is a talented soprano, yes, but whose passion lies elsewhere: in illusions and conjurations. At last, this was a Christine with some agency, who could face the Phantom, Raoul, and everyone else and say, “No. This is who I am. Take me or leave me.”

After reading the novel in full, I can say that we do get that Christine–eventually. Once she stops believing everything anyone tells her and stops being so slow on the uptake. Once she stops flip-flopping worse than a politician running for office, thinking firmly on doing one thing but then physically doing the exact opposite. But you know what? It’s okay for a female character to be naive and contradictory if she learns from her mistakes and grows as a character. Christine does, and I would have been fine with that if it hadn’t been at the cost of the characterizations of nearly every other POTO character fans are familiar with.

Meg Giry is reduced to being a gossip and therefore becomes a rarely seen character in Christine’s life. Meg’s friendship with Christine is replaced by one featuring Christine’s Irish maid, Claudette. Madame Giry is mostly referenced and I hated the ending she got. It was bizarre. And then there’s Erik.

I know Erik is incurably extra and dramatic all the time, but he was all over the place in this novel. I barely recognized him at times. The author emphasized his obsession and “tortured soul” to the point where every action he did became not only unsympathetic but also irredeemable. And that thing with Christine’s mother? Ugh, no. Mm-mm. It’s a no from me.

While I like and agree with the message that Erik himself, not Christine, is the person in charge of fixing his own brokenness, the fact that Webb made him so abhorrent to the reader in so many ways betrays how little she thinks of his character. Erik does terrible things, yes. He’s grotesque to behold and erratic, but he also draws you in. He captivates you, and despite everything he does, you always have that tiny bit of sympathy and compassion for him because so much of him is still human. He still craves love and acceptance like the rest of us, and he chooses to do the right thing in the end where it counts. The complexity of his being is what makes the relationships he does have–with the Persian, Madame Giry, Christine–so fascinating.

Those vital aspects of his character are missing in this book. It doesn’t matter how many times I’m told that Christine feels sympathy for him because her actions never reflected it. Not even when she decides not to go to the police about him (something she thinks about doing constantly but never does) because she decides she needs to protect him. For some reason. Even though he’s a monster. I’m not making this up; this is her actual thought process about him. Her thoughts are always mired in horror and revulsion of him, and she never actually shows any sympathy to him without having an ulterior motive first.

Everything with her Angel was roses until she learns Erik killed Joseph Buquet. Christine decides that, while she cares for Erik, she’s disgusted by him because in her mind, all murder is wrong, even in self-defense. And yet, Erik kills Buquet because he 1) attacks Erik and 2) tries to rape Christine twice and a warning from Erik after the first time didn’t get the job done.

In Christine’s defense, Erik’s behavior does get worse, her disgust is justified, and she owes Erik nothing. But I can’t help but notice how meanwhile, Raoul’s just returned from the navy as a sailor. The book is mum on the subject, but I bet he conveniently didn’t see any combat or have to kill an enemy soldier because moral grayness is a big no-no for authors lately, and we certainly can’t have our new, complicated heroines wind up with anyone who isn’t morally pure, can we?

That came from a bad place, I’m sorry. I stand by it, though.

I thought this novel was going to be the one that finally made me like Raoul, but thankfully that was not the case, as you can see. He’s still the same pretty boy taking up space and the source of insta-love for Christine he’s always been. Only this time, he’s also brainless, willing to give up his money, titles, everything for Christine, so she can be a conjurer. Hm, sure, Jan. That’s totally what would go down.

“But they’ve loved each other since childhood!” you cry. Please. They knew each other for one summer when they were, what, ten, and then never see each other all throughout their transformative teenage and young adult years. That’s a big jump, wouldn’t you say? I could understand if they had grown up together for much longer than that, always being in each other’s social circles, but they haven’t been. When they meet up again in their twenties, they are essentially different people–at least one would hope so–because life has its way like that. They’re also in two different social classes.

Yet when they lock eyes for the first time in over a decade, they decide they love each other then and there; you can’t ask me to take that seriously. You can’t ask me to accept that they actually love each other for who they are as adults when really what they love are those kids they once were and their own nostalgia. I guess it helps, too, that both of them grew up to be super attractive; it’s hard to think rationally around hot people, I guess.

Carlotta I had hope for. She was the same vain diva we know her as, yet she seemed to take Christine under her wing a little bit, for like a second, in a backhanded way, and that was a fascinating change. But the longer I read, the more she became a rival for Christine’s happiness with Raoul, causing a ridiculously overdramatic affair that I was honestly rolling my eyes at the entire time.

What I could not forgive, however, was that Webb also dared to reference the Persian, and I thought, Oh, finally! More scenes with him and Erik, maybe even some with Christine, oh, won’t this be a delight!

Not once does he speak. Not once do we see him up close. The author even kills him, the only POC in the entire novel, at the end, for absolutely no reason. That’s not even a spoiler, I feel, because he had no baring on the novel whatsoever other than to be collateral damage, and honestly? I’m pissed about it. What a waste.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the changes Christine went through in this novel. I love watching her wrestle with upholding her promise to her father to be a famous singer while secretly desiring to be a conjurer instead. I love her journey and how she eventually reconciles the two. I love the strength and self-worth she discovers within herself and that she begins to stick up for what she wants.

But she still decides that her happiness is with Raoul. That she can’t have it without him. Conjuring, singing, none of that matters if she’s not married to Raoul.

There went the character growth! Oh, we were so close! 

Why, why must we divert back to endings that we’ve already seen and have been done to death? She and Raoul even travel to America, New York to be precise, because…? We have to give a tribute to Love Never Dies for some reason? Well, Webb did bring up Raoul’s alcohol problem at one point, but he was “in a bad way” after losing a fellow sailor to a mugging (see? no combat, that would’ve been too complicated) and it’s in the past now. He’s sober as a duck on Sunday. No character flaws to be found here, kids!

Indeed, the novel grossly suffers from trying to follow both the Leroux novel and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical to give readers familiar cues while also attempting to do its own narration. This made the book read like a half-baked rehash at times, dragging through familiar scenes like Carlotta croaking on stage, the chandelier fall, Christine’s visit to her father’s grave, and the infamous masquerade ball scene. But still trying to squeeze this conjuring thing into it to justify it, not to mention all the spiritualism.

Oh, the spiritualism. This was done almost singularly to give Professor Delacroix, a Webb original character, a purpose for being in this book to begin with, and it was honestly unnecessary. All his screen time should’ve been the Persian’s. I guess the spiritualism was also to represent Christine going back and forth between believing in ghosts and spirits and knowing them to be a hoax. It’s weird because she doesn’t believe the spirits of her parents are watching over her, but she believes the Angel of Music is actually an angel/spirit/ghost–until he isn’t. Until Erik reveals himself as just a man, and then Christine starts to experience her father’s spirit being near her, guiding her and protecting her.

It was weird how much this book, like its heroine, flip-flopped between everything, and most of that narrative indecision came from, again, trying to shove a new plot into an old one, and not with nearly the finesse of those fanfics I used to read.

It’s a shame because all the new scenes within the book were intriguing. I got to see Carlotta’s apartment and spend more time with the diva, experience Christine’s strange relationship with the obviously untrustworthy Delacroix, and watch Christine’s growing fascination with conjuring. If Webb had actually focused on Christine developing that skill instead of making her novel conform too much to the more classic takes of Phantom of the Opera, she might have had something truly special here.

For instance, the title, The Phantom’s Apprentice, carries a lot of expectation. We know Christine is Erik’s singing apprentice, but we all know about his love for trickery and illusion. Webb giving Christine that same gift and interest seemed to imply that Christine would become his apprentice in another fashion.

I was looking forward to seeing her and Erik forge a working relationship, even a friendship and maybe something more, beyond his obsession with her beauty and her singing voice. (The novel gives another reason, the “true” reason, for his obsession, and nah.) I was looking forward to Erik delighting in teaching Christine something new, honing a talent she’s possessed all along, for her to not just succeed him but best him at it.

Instead, Erik focuses almost predominately on her singing and his production of Don Juan Triumphant. They have one little conversation where they actually talk about the finer points of conjuring, many of which Christine already knew from being self-taught, and then it was over. The novel ended with her using her meager skills to somehow best him and free herself–with Raoul in tow, of course, because we can’t forget that tool ever.

There were so many good ideas here, and by the 66% mark, I was willing to give this novel four stars, but it tanked after that. The writing got sloppier, turning more and more YA-like even though this was supposed to be a historical fiction novel. (That’s not an insult to YA novels, which I love, but sometimes the writing can be juvenile, and that’s what started happening here.) The characters became overdramatic caricatures of who they’d been up to that point, and all the play and Leroux callbacks were just too much. In the end, the execution did not live up to the synopsis and my expectations, which weren’t extremely high to begin with.

I do need to thank The Phantom’s Apprentice, though, because it solidified something in me I’ve begun to suspect for a long time. Unlike in my teenage years, I don’t ship Christine with Erik any longer, at least not in any kind of canon, traditional fashion. She’s not bold enough to stand up to him and not put up with his shit, even in this, her strongest incarnation, and he is absolutely terrible for her for so many reasonsBut nor do I ship her with Raoul because, if he’s not utterly careless and incompetent, then at best he doesn’t take the time to understand her, and at worst, he’s just as controlling and dominating over Christine’s decisions as Erik is.

Christine just needs to do Christine, and leave these fools behind. I really wish the novel had gone that route, truly setting Christine free once and for all.

And yes, I admit it. I wanted a scene where the Persian and Christine bitched and gossiped about Erik knowing full well he’s somewhere listening, and I didn’t get it, and I am an endless salt mine when it comes to things like this.

To quote my friend Victoria who thought she was quoting Gandhi that one time, “It is from our expectations that we derive our greatest sorrows.”

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