“The world is full of impossible questions, Isabelle. You can’t hope to get it right. You just have to get it least wrong.”
4.5/5 paper planes
What’s This Book About?
Genre: Adult magical realism
Publication: 5 Nov 2020 (Del Rey)
Pages: 480 (hardcover)
Synopsis: Every city has its own magic…
Every night on their long journey to Paris from their troubled homeland, Levon’s grandmother has read to them from a very special book. Called The Nocturne, it is a book full of fairy stories and the heroic adventures of their people who generations before chose to live by starlight.
With every story that Levon’s grandmother tells them in their new home, the desire to live as their ancestors did grows. And that is when the magic begins…
Nobody can explain why nocturnal water dogs start appearing at the heels of every citizen of Paris-by-Starlight like the loyal retainers they once were. There are suddenly night finches in the skies and the city is transforming: the Eiffel Tower lit up by strange ethereal flowers that drink in the light of the moon.
But not everyone in Paris is won over by the spectacle of Paris-by-Starlight. There are always those that fear the other, the unexplained, the strangers in our midst. How long can the magic of night rub up against the ordinariness of day? How long can two worlds occupy the same streets and squares before there is an outright war?
Content warnings: blood, injury (including blinding from fireworks), physical violence and murder; loss of a loved one; xenophobia, misogyny, nationalistic hate crimes and homophobic slurs (the f-word); animal cruelty (including murder); bullying; swearing
What I Thought:
I was genuinely not expecting to enjoy this SO MUCH. I’d been surprised with this book in the mail, Dinsdale was a new-to-me author, and magical realism is a pretty new genre for me so I didn’t know what to anticipate!
Gorgeously written with vivid prose, this book does a great job balancing theme, character and plot. The central themes and motifs really make the book feel very coherent and cohesive – always a good sign in a standalone! The themes are both grand yet small, relatable on even an individual level. Family, courage, second chances (and what we do with them), the tension when cultures are pressed together, and the power of imagination, both wondrous (like the magic of starlight reborn) and terrible (such as xenophobic stereotypes and fake news).
Dinsdale’s luxurious prose brilliantly paints the scenery, whatever the environment, both blossoming and bleak.
I’m just going to use ‘Your Name’ anime gifs for this review because they fit SO WELL
It was a lot less character-driven than I’d expected (not a bad thing!) as books with this sort of writing style make me anticipate lots of internal monologuing, and the characters all still elicited very strong emotion from me. I’m talking tears. Rage. Terror. There was also a touching interracial love story between a young French woman, Isabelle, and Levon, one of the People who became refugees after their country was invaded . The development of the romance is closely tied to the fate of Paris By Starlight. Aka my favourite type of romance – one that works with the plot rather than battling with it for dominance!
If you’ve read this book, you’ll understand the significance of the time of day shown in this gif!
The plot had great pacing, twists and exposition, assisted by the cutaways to several different POVs. The POV cutaways were particularly effective in the last few chapters, flitting between characters as it ratchets up to an explosive peak. There was an AMAZING callback at the end to one of the in-universe legends too! My emotions mirrored the plot, glowing with hope, trembling with trepidation and falling into chaos, just like the city of Paris-by-Starlight. I also thought the intermittent POVs from Esmé (who appears first in the Prologue) and her father were a very clever way to illustrate how those who aren’t major players are affected by the events transpiring in Paris-by-Starlight. The interludes at critical points during the story were also very well done, slowly introducing what will become a pivotal character in the latter parts of the book.
This book, while fictional and full of starry magic, is also a stark depiction of the refugee crises, fake news and hate crimes happening right now that are all too real, and those caught between extremes. It was frightening yet familiar to see how fear and misunderstanding snowball so easily, the rise of nationalist terrorists and a dictator’s militia in response, as well as the radicalisation of vulnerable children. Not exactly light reading, but such issues cannot be ignored.
One sentence that spoke volumes: a Frenchman commenting on one of the People’s broken French and claiming that if he was in someone else’s country, he’d try harder to learn their language. This reminded me of my first trip to Japan – and my surprise that there was a lot less English than I’d expected (e.g. on signs, spoken by locals etc.). And yet…why should I have been surprised? I grew up in a former British colony where English is one of the official languages, attended an international school and my first language is English. I had unwittingly subscribed to the colonialist idea that somehow expected English to be everywhere, for things to be easy. Obviously, expressive gesticulating and language apps helped me out (my family even had a rule that we’d only eat at places with solely Japanese menus, to avoid tourist traps) and both my trips to Japan were among the most wonderful experiences of my life… ANYWAY, I digress!
Something I particularly appreciated was the nuance in this book, how villains existed on both sides of the cultural divide. Both are detestable, deluded in their ‘heroism’ and misogynistic to boot. I would argue that the racist nationalist receives less sympathy/humanisation, though honestly I thought that was fitting.
All in all, one of the best surprises of 2020 and I’m definitely going to check out more of Dinsdale’s work!
Thank you to Del Rey for a gifted copy for an honest review.
About the Author:
Robert Dinsdale was born in North Yorkshire and currently lives in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. He is the author of four critically acclaimed novels: ‘The Toymakers’, ‘The Harrowing’, ‘Little Exiles’ and ‘Gingerbread’.
Photograph from author’s website.