Hello. How do I even try to review this amazing book? I read this almost a month ago and I am still in the stage where my review is basically: words good, book beautiful, author clever, feelings broken, and I must staple this book to every human I see so they can be broken by it too. Also, I met Mel on Wednesday at an event in Newcastle and it was so awesome I can’t even. She is a truly wonderful human. I can go now, yes? No? You want an actual review from me? Sigh.
First things first, that cover – major heart eyes. I love the colours, the dreaminess of it and the fact that it’s tactile. There’s something really reassuring about being able to stroke a book whilst it destroys your swinging-brick heart one clever twist at a time. It also has a map. I don’t know what it is about maps in books, but even though I’m geographically challenged and rarely pay them any attention until after I’ve read the book (I want the author’s words to build the world in my head, rather than a map they didn’t draw), but I adore them and this one is exceptionally pretty. I love that each area has a little flag / coat of arms, and that you can see how tiny the bridge is in the landscape and really appreciate how small a thing it was that brought this country to its knees.
Rhylla is a country trapped in perpetual mourning, held hostage by one man’s grief. Chancellor Harun’s son, Mael, died in a tragic bridge accident eighteen years ago, and he is determined that the country will mourn this loss forever. The original story of Mael’s death is heart-breaking (the image of the first lady screaming as he falls from the bridge is one that still haunts me), but this level of grief is not sustainable. When he can no longer manufacture the tears and outward signs of his sadness, Harun turns to the drug Lamentia. He demands that everyone mourn with him. There is a ceremony on the anniversary of Mael’s death every year. The people must wear dark colours, happiness and joy are forbidden and the arts are banned. Imagine a world of darkness with no reading. This is quite possibly my worst nightmare. It is the world that Sorrow is born into.
Sorrow is Harun’s daughter, so named by her mother because “that is all she brings us”. Her mother is dead, her father isn’t interested in her, he has eyes only for his dead heir; his daughter is nothing to him. Sorrow is raised by her grandmother, who is recently deceased at the time we join the story. I’ve barely made a start on the plot of this novel and already I am wondering how Sorrow survives in this world. Mel has a special knack for writing fragile girls discovering their strength through their female attributes, and Sorrow is one of the best. She isn’t yet confident in herself and she is learning to be an adult, doing brave things in an unimaginably difficult situation. She does not know what she wants from her life, because thinking about her life is not a luxury she can afford. I’m pleased that we got to see some of the happier moments of Sorrow’s past: her close relationship with the grandmother who raised her is something that Sorrow keeps coming back to. It gives her strength. It also gives her motivation to face her responsibility.
Sorrow’s grief at the loss of her grandmother is clear and it is real, in stark contrast to her father’s drug-induced tears. Harun’s inability to see beyond the son he lost is bringing Rhylla to ruin, and Sorrow is forced to shoulder responsibilities and make decisions that no seventeen-year-old should have to deal with. She does not have the chance to be a girl and a daughter. Her lack of emotion towards her father, and later her anger, may seem harsh (after all, he did lose a child), but it is honest, and Sorrow does not shy away from her darker feelings: her emptiness, her hatred, and her jealousy. Harun’s actions frustrate Sorrow and spur her on to be better than he is and to give Rhylla the future it deserves.
Sorrow also finds great strength in the unwavering support of her friend Irris, who is just brilliant. She is completely supportive of Sorrow, but not afraid to tell her when she’s doing something stupid. We all need a friend like that in our lives. Sorrow is sassy, sarcastic and closed-off emotionally. In many ways, Irris is her opposite, but she is exactly what Sorrow needs:
“Irris loved Sorrow enough to tell her the truth; Irris always cut to the heart of an issue like a knife through butter. Irris pulled no punches, never balked, never quavered. Irris would soothe her, rally her, as she always did.”
Irris is the one character that I never doubted in this novel. She brings so much comfort to Sorrow’s dark world that I think if she ever betrayed her, it would irreparably destroy Sorrow, and me.
Irris gives Sorrow the encouragement to face her life, and moral support as she tries to gain the respect of the people around her, mostly men, who see her as nothing more than a child and who think they know better than her. She constantly has to fight for respect, to have a witty comeback to everything, and to put on a brave face to be taken seriously. Any success she has is hard won. It’s outrageous and it made me angry. Even those who claim to love Sorrow, like Charon, want her to do and to be something more than she is. They want her to be more political, more emotional, more responsible, but only on their terms. In part, Sorrow’s story is one of a young woman making her mark in a man’s world using her feminine traits: her care for others, her friendship, her desire to share a better future with her people rather than just rule them from afar.
Sorrow has one man in her life who appears to give her nothing but comfort: Rasmus. Oh violet-eyed Rasmus! They find comfort and enjoyment in each other, but this is a Mel Salisbury story, so obviously their love is not that simple. Their relationship, like any Rhyllian and Rhannish relationship, is forbidden and punishable by death, so it must be kept secret. There’s also the teeny tiny issue of Rasmus’s father being an awful human apparently determined to destroy Sorrow. Sorrow is not used to letting people get close to her, or opening up enough to let someone hurt her, and this impacts on her relationship. I won’t lie, I want a happy ending for these two. My dark heart wants Sorrow and Rasmus to find happiness despite the world being against them.
As the story progresses, it becomes harder to work out what the characters motivations are and who around Sorrow is to be trusted. This is one of the things I most admire in Mel’s writing: her characters are never predictable. So many moments boil down to the idea that if the character had made a slightly different choice, the world would be a different place.
State of Sorrow is a very political novel, and it is exceptionally clever. Rhylla is a country that claims to be a democracy but there is only ever one name on the ballot: Ventaxis. Often, there is only one candidate. I have seen reviews criticise this aspect of State of Sorrow’s politics, and suggest that is is convenient for the plot. I disagree. I think it is very reflective of current day politics, and of the many countries today who have the illusion of choice, or are living with the consequences of a leader that the majority of the people did not vote for. Mel’s politics are on point. This illusion of choice is perfect. The pitting of the old, elitist politics (embodied by Mael and supported by Vespus) against a new age of people-centred politics (Sorrow) is clever. Really clever. The more I reflect on this book, the more I discover and I am really looking forward to seeing how it moves forward.
The plot twists in this story are something else. Mel is an absolute master of the unexpected but completely believable twists. I can’t go into these without spoilers, but I will say one of them relies on missing children with incomplete paperwork, and this one especially surprised me. I did not see it coming at all. Again, it’s clever. Have I said Mel is clever? This particular twist is more realistic than many people will think. In our current age, meticulous paperwork would make this unlikely, but historically (perhaps even as soon as eighteen years ago!), this wasn’t the case, and that’s why so many people in their adult years are trying to track down their biological families with very little information to go on. This is well-explored in the reappearance of Mael after eighteen years, who seemingly comes from nowhere. It gives us the doubt we have throughout the story about who he is and what his motivations are. I started the book despising his reappearance for the impact it had on Sorrow, but by the end I really felt for him and I cannot wait to see what Mel has in store for him and Sorrow in book two.
Make no mistake, State of Sorrow is an emotional read. Mel will rip your heart out, stamp on it, pull it apart and then hand it back wrapped in ribbon ready for book two. I am all here for that heartache.