Ruinsong by Julia Ember
Her voice was her prison…
Now it’s her weapon.
In a world where magic is sung, a powerful mage named Cadence has been forced to torture her country’s disgraced nobility at her ruthless queen’s bidding.
But when she is reunited with her childhood friend, a noblewoman with ties to the underground rebellion, she must finally make a choice: Take a stand to free their country from oppression, or follow in the queen’s footsteps and become a monster herself.
Take The Phantom of the Opera and make it sapphic.
Throw in magic spun through music, a brutal tyrant, and the promise of revolution on the horizon, and you end up with Ruinsong! Dancing between Cadence, the queen’s unwilling Principal Singer, and Remi, the daughter of nobility nursing a growing hatred for the queen’s regime, Ruinsong confronts power and complacency, and what it means to truly change. Sometimes brutal and sometimes excruciatingly soft, this is a retelling full of magic in so many forms, with a bright burst of queerness along the way.
How do you reconcile an instrument of torture with one of her victims?
Easily one of my favorite things about this book is the way it builds Remi and Cadence’s relationship. Playmates in their early days, the queen’s rise to power forced them apart. Now, in one another’s orbit once more, Cadence is the queen’s favorite instrument, using her magical prowess to torture the people into subservice, if only because she fears the consequences of disobeying. Meanwhile, Remi is no longer an oblivious child, and can see the queen’s cruelty for what it is. When she is forced to bear witness to Cadence’s power as a torture device, she not only recognizes her childhood friend, but scorns her for acting as the queen’s pet.
If only it were so easy to stay apart, though.
As expected, Remi and Cadence continue to find one another, sometimes even forced to spend time together, and fresh truths come to light. The depth of the queen’s depravity and its effect on Cadence are all too clear, while the true reach of pending revolution comes closer to Remi’s life than she ever realized. I loved the way these two navigated their reconciliation with the queen’s threats always looming, but more than that, I love how Ruinsong dealt with apology and revolution. Cadence doesn’t get a free pass for obeying the queen out of fear. It explains her behavior, but she comes to understand it doesn’t excuse it. More than that, she realizes that making a worthwhile apology requires more than words. Action, decisive and unmistakable action, is critical to moving forward.
And as for revolution? Ruinsong points out that it’s not enough to flip the script, retaining power structures and simply changing who inhabits them. Transformation from the bottom up is the only way to redress old wrongs and find a future worth sharing despite past wounds. For a stand-alone book, it gets this point across quite well, and it left me impressed!
Sometimes, though, I felt a little lost.
This might be due to my personal cluelessness, though. I’ll admit that I’ve never seen The Phantom of the Opera in any of its forms, so the most I know of its plot is the summary off Wikipedia. Which I Googled after reading Ruinsong. I’m not sure if that was smart, allowing me to guess at plot twists naturally, or if it left me a little farther behind than a reader who actually knows the story’s roots. At least I can draw some parallels now that I’ve read a summary, though I’m sure I’m missing some of the details that really tie the two together.
Beyond my limited knowledge of Phantom, though, sometimes I felt like the world of Ruinsong was too big for some 360-odd pages. The hints of divine magic, the promises of other lands without magic, and even the resolution to the climax felt like they pulled in elements I had no way to prepare for. A couple bits even struck me as a bit deus ex machina, much to my frustration. Sure, I wholeheartedly enjoyed the book, but the bits and pieces of confusion arrived a little too often for me to brush off.
Ruinsong should be on your TBR.
A sapphic stand-alone with heart, it takes a classic and reshapes it into something wonderful and new. Though sometimes deeply dark (do heed the content warnings below), it’s forthright even when it hurts, and gentle when the healing begins. I hope you’ll give Cadence and Remi your time and love, and let Julia Ember’s magical new world whisk you away, just for a while. 💜
CW: loss of a loved one, violence, animal death, torture, homophobia, gore, graphic injury, medical scenes, abortion, nudity, alcoholism