Author: Kristen Ciccarelli
Genre: Young Adult/Contemporary Fantasy
Version: ARC – eBook
Page Count: 384
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Synopsis: GoodReads | StoryGraph
Notable Notables: A bard-like protagonist; lesbian side characters
Recommended Readers: Basic fantasy lovers and those who like stories about sentient woods
CAWPILE Rating: 4.57
Edgewood by Kristen Ciccarelli is a contemporary fantasy YA novel about a girl named Emeline, who is on the cusp of breaking into the music industry as an established folk singer. However, she can never quite escape the creeping woods of her hometown, which permeate her performances whenever she sings no matter where she is.
When she gets word that her grandfather and caretaker has gone missing—potentially taken as a tithe to the mysterious Wood King—Emeline races back to Edgewood to find him. Braving the mysterious woods, she finds the Wood King’s court and strikes a bargain: she will become the Wood King’s new minstrel in return for her grandfather’s freedom. To do that, she must work together with the king’s tithe collector, Hawthorne, to recover the Song Mage’s lost sheet music and discover the cause of the wood’s corruption.
This book had me in the first third, not gonna lie. I always vibe with writing that discusses the intricacies and beauty of music through lyrical prose. Emeline’s opening performance during the beginning was an incredible scene-setter, both establishing her talent and struggles in the music industry while also demonstrating the ominous, regretful quality of her past. The reader gets a sense right away that something is being forgotten on the way to fame, and the reasons for Emeline to return home come through believably and clearly.
Indeed, Emeline’s familial ties and obligations to her grandfather as her sole guardian struck a particular cord with me, since my own grandfather passed away last year. Watching Emeline sort through the guilt of abandoning him to live her life but making him proud as she pursued her dream was a familiar tightrope walk. The extra layer of pain that came with her grandfather forgetting her due to Alzheimer’s also enriched the story for as long as it was relevant. I went through a similar experience with my other grandfather on my father’s side. Reading about a grandchild and a grandparent was also a refreshing break from the other family bond tropes that are rampant in YA, particularly the “older sister protects younger sister” scenario.
Edgewood was also fascinating as a setting. The superstitious, close-knit townspeople. The tithe marker. The rumors. The seemingly endless, directionless woods. The ember mares. The shiftlings. The Wood King’s court. The rot. All of it was coming together into a quality, modern fairytale.
It’s not so much that things fell apart but more so that nothing ever deepened beyond the introductions. The contemporary part of the book claims to take place in Montréal, but the city could’ve been called Atlanta, Seattle, or Vancouver, and there would’ve been no difference. We spend time within Edgewood, yet despite it being a fantasy-esque kingdom hidden in some kind of liminal space, the shiftlings living there are wearing sweaters and other modern clothing. The Wood King is never named yet somehow he remains the most faelike creature and one of the few fairytale elements that is carried out for the entire book.
Aside from Emeline and Hawthorne, every other character is given a name and a single personality trait. Some trait examples are being mischievous, but in a good way, or being a lesbian. One character, Nettle, completely disappears from the narrative midway through without a clear indication for why other than her purpose being served. (And given Hawthorne’s threat, at this point, I have to assume he killed her, although I strongly feel that isn’t the case.)
Emeline’s grandfather and the emphasis on memory, as far as he is concerned, also only lasts for as long as he’s relevant. Once Emeline manages to rescue him, the importance of their bond largely fades away, as if it had never been.
At an increasing pace, Emeline’s musical talent is glossed over with vague yet flowery descriptions and sometimes subpar lyrics that cause me to feel less intrigued by her as a main character. The magical element of her powers almost makes up for it, if it wasn’t for how obvious the twist behind it is.
And folks, there are many twists, and none of them are subtle or made me feel fulfilled for having figured them out ahead of time. If Ciccarelli had left a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, that would’ve done it. Instead, the author leaves flashing neon signs that overcompensates for a perceived lack of reading comprehension skills from the readers. Rather than this being intentional, it’s more so a failing of how publishers are forcing YA novels to become oversimplified to fit with market trends. Middle Grade novels are being allowed more sophistication than YA novels at this rate.
What, then, is left when everything I was excited for in the first third dries up? That would be the one-step-above instalove romance between Emeline and Hawthorne. Parts of this romance held moments of intrigue. Hawthorne’s strange familiarity despite he and Emeline never having met before now. Emeline’s loathing of him. Their forced proximity and reliance on each other.
What weighs the romance down, however, could fill another book. Emeline already has a boyfriend, except not really. He’s merely the obstacle to… Actually, he doesn’t stand in the way of Emeline developing lustful feelings (and then more) for Hawthorne at all. Feelings are complicated things, and I was proud of Emeline for owning up to them and being honest with her not-boyfriend.
My question is, why give her a not-boyfriend at all if it added nothing to the reading experience? The author believes it explains why Emeline, at nineteen, has never found true love before with any other guy she’s slept with (lol) and why Hawthorne is so special by comparison and the One (another lol). I can’t help but notice that most people don’t have many fulfilling romantic and sexual relationships by age nineteen, and that’s normal. If Hawthorne’s so amazing, there doesn’t have to be a subpar dude there to make the reader’s eyes gloss over whenever he shows up. We’ve all had to deal with mediocrity before.
Then, there’s the hurt-feelings miscommunication, which was almost made bearable due to plot reasons but not quite. At least it leaves the story whenever the plot needs it to or when Emeline needs to act ridiculous around Hawthorne. Since her only talent is music—by her own admission—Hawthorne starts to teach her to make bread. (Mel, I thought this was a fantasy adventure in a fae world. My compatriot, I know.) During the process, they have a play-fight with flour, resulting in her dumping an entire bag of flour on Hawthorne’s head and they still make out afterwards. That moment marks when I threw in the towel. Nothing about that sounds appealing in any form.
But then there’s the Truth of their relationship, which is… Uncomfortable at best and in bad taste at worst. Don’t even get me started on the whole stupid tree thing or how memory is applied to the two of them. The ending made me so furious and disbelieving that I was so glad I didn’t have to read a page more or ever worry about a potential sequel. Let’s just say: ego death? Not my flavor.
As for the representation, especially concerning the lesbian side couple, don’t waste your time or money on Edgewood for that factor alone. Both lesbian characters are there for when the main character needs them for plot purposes, and then they vanish from existence.
That was most of the book, honestly. If it wasn’t in Emeline’s line of sight or in her immediate thoughts, it didn’t exist. As a result, so much of her interpersonal relationships and the world-building remain underdeveloped, and many plot twists happen with no real thought to their consequences or impact for the characters they are related to. If something does not pertain directly to Emeline, then it isn’t truly important.
This is, perhaps, the biggest trend in YA that is a huge reason why I’ve been turning away from this genre and reaching for adult fantasy novels. I’m tired of the main character being the only character who matters. Why have a cast of characters at all if they are only names on a page—or, in Wood King fashion, are not even deserving of a name?