Belladonna Book Review
What's a Dark Academia theme without a gothic manor, a poison-filled mystery, and literal brushes with Death? This week, we're reviewing Belladonna by Adalyn Grace, the much-anticipated book about a girl who's been surrounded by death and spirits her whole life—and who might be falling for Death himself. Ah, yes, we did say we. Because this is Jordan and Kori's first buddy read and joint review! And away we go 😉
Genre: YA Dark Romantasy
Category: Cozy Read
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RATING: 3/5 Stars
Plot: 2.5/5 stars
Characters: 3/5 stars
World: 4/5 stars
Orphaned as a baby, nineteen-year-old Signa has been raised by a string of guardians, each more interested in her wealth than her well-being—and each has met an untimely end. Her remaining relatives are the elusive Hawthornes, an eccentric family living at Thorn Grove, an estate both glittering and gloomy. Its patriarch mourns his late wife through wild parties, while his son grapples for control of the family’s waning reputation and his daughter suffers from a mysterious illness. But when their mother’s restless spirit appears claiming she was poisoned, Signa realizes that the family she depends on could be in grave danger and enlists the help of a surly stable boy to hunt down the killer.
However, Signa’s best chance of uncovering the murderer is an alliance with Death himself, a fascinating, dangerous shadow who has never been far from her side. Though he’s made her life a living hell, Death shows Signa that their growing connection may be more powerful—and more irresistible—than she ever dared imagine.
Signa Farrow is no stranger to the world of spirits, having been able to see them her entire life. She views them as a nuisance, but it's Death she really has a bone to pick with. In her mind, he's a threat to her stability, wreaking havoc on her life by taking every relative so she's bounced from one home to another.
Signa cannot die and any wound or illness does not linger for long. So she's only able to contact Death by "killing" herself temporarily—and her favorite method is ingesting belladonna berries, which allow her to hover in the space between life and death.
The plot kicks off with Signa doing this so she can demand to know why Death torments her. The mysterious, shadowy entity claims he has done nothing but his job and only comes to Signa when called—meaning when she dies.
To put her mind at ease, Death assures Signa she'll be well cared for after Signa accidentally kills her vindictive Aunt Marigold by touching her. Yep, it would appear Signa has the death-touch when she's...well, dead.
So Signa is shipped off to yet another relative at Thorn Grove estate. She's escorted by a handsome and grouchy stable boy, Sylas, whose connection to the family is hazy at best. Only when Signa arrives at her new home, she finds Death already hovering over it—literally and figuratively.
The lady of the manor, Lillian Hawthorne, died of a wasting illness shortly before, and now her daughter Blythe is sick with the same symptoms. After Signa meets Lillian's vengeful spirit who hints that her death was no accident, she ropes Sylas into a secret mission: find the murderer and save Blythe before it's too late.
J: Sounds like an awesome concept, right? It was! It is! But no! The book yanks the reader from one red herring to the next: Sylas's whole situation is suspicious, but no one really cares. Elijah Hawthorne doesn't want his family business yet refuses to hand it over to his brother Byron or his son Percy, and they're all pissed about it. But no one will talk to each other? No one directly asks why. It's infuriating.
The governess, Marjorie, is in cahoots with Byron and has a thing for Elijah. Love triangle between Marjorie, Lillian, and Elijah? It would appear so, but that's too obvious. Signa's old friend Charlotte, whose life was ruined when her mother had an affair with Signa's uncle and they all lost social standing, knows her way around a garden and poisons. But no one thinks twice about her.
It makes me wonder why any of the herrings were there if the characters never considered them?
K: Then there's the fact that pretty much every clue leading to the big reveal is either handed to Signa, or she falls bass-ackwards into discovery. When she did find evidence that gave her cause to suspect one of the characters, she RAN with it, instantly accusing and not analyzing the clues further.
Sure, this could have been an honest mistake, but her sleuthing skills are lacking at best. And her constant use of the puzzle analogy was grating.
J: Yes. Practically every page after the mystery began was "must solve the puzzle" and "she could not make the puzzle fit." Of course you can't, Signa, you aren't doing any puzzling *shakes book*.
NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD [Skip to Characters to avoid]
J: Don't even get me started on the "big reveal." I waited patiently for Kori to read the last few chapters so we could WTF together 😂
Come on, PERCY?? The son who had zero shade thrown at him the entire book, who waited lovingly by his sister's bedside, who laughed and joked and had a grand time with everyone?
It's not that he was calculating. That might've been a cool reveal. Nope, his reasoning was...because reasons?
"I meant for it to be Marjorie. [...] How long did you think it'd take before someone figured out that I was born to the governess? [...] I put belladonna into a pot of tea that was meant for Marjorie. But [Lillian] drank it. [...] So I gave [her] more berries, always in the tea [...]. But it was never enough. I was getting them to [her] too slowly, and [her] body was developing a tolerance too quickly."
What...what do you mean "drank the tea meant for—" How does that happen? And what do you mean you had to keep poisoning Lillian until she died? Why not just let her get better? Shit, no one suspected you, and how many times could the lady of the manor accidentally drink her governess's tea? O-o
K: I spent the whole book feeling bad for Percy and wanting him to get a happy ending. And THIS is what I get?! An entire plot hinging on the miscommunication trope?!
Like Jordan said in our Discord chat, this felt like a lazy way for the author to have a shocking reveal—for the murderer to be anyone but the obvious suspects. Everything about it was completely unsatisfactory.
If you hadn't noticed yet, we aren't big fans of Signa. It's not just her terrible investigation, either.
She's immature, constantly pining after a future of luxurious comfort and being an idolized part of society. Even when new experiences cause her to question how much she would actually enjoy participating in high society, she still dreams of that and nothing more.
Which brings us to our next complaint: how flighty she is. While the story focuses on her evolving relationship with Death, Signa can't stop making goo-goo eyes at every handsome lord or stable boy that crosses her path. Even after deciding that she wants a future with Death, five seconds around a previous crush has her questioning if she's made the right decision.
Death is hot, goes out of his way to help her, comes to her rescue every time she gets herself into a bind, and encourages or challenges her to step into her power. She even admits multiple times he's the only person she can truly relax and be herself around. How can anyone compete with that?!
The rest of the cast is fine, aside from their refusal to sit down and talk like adults. Elijah comes across as a jerk, but time reveals the pain and good intentions he's masking.
J: I wanted to like Signa. I wanted so bad for this to be a darkly romantic waltz with Death. Someone surrounded by loss and the dead her entire life should at least be empathetic, right? A little quirky, even?
Signa balked at her cousin's words. "You do not wish to join society?" She'd never heard such a statement. Never thought that anyone might want anything different. To debut was expected—it was what the etiquette books instructed, and what society trained young women for.
Signa [let] herself imagine for a moment what Lord Wakefield might be like. He'd have broad shoulders, she thought, and would look quite dignified. But the more she fleshed out an image of him in her mind, the more the image began to shift, until she saw smoky eyes and a man as tall as a willow. Until she saw Sylas. [...] Yet the more she thought of that, the more she thought of her past night spent hand in hand with Death.
Ah, yes, all of her boy craze in one paragraph that overuses words like much of the book.
Why? Why is this in your head at all times? Your cousin is dying, someone murdered your aunt, the whole house is grieving, and all you can think about is what handsome lord you'll marry and how lovely you'll look at all those fancy parties?
"I have waited an eternity to meet you, Signa Farrow. [...] To me, you are a song to a soul that has never known music. Light to someone who has only seen darkness. You bring out the absolute worst in me, and I become vindictive toward those who treat you in ways I don't care for. Yet you also bring out the best in me—I want to be better because of you. Better for you."
This hot immortal shadow dude, Death incarnate, wants you to embrace your villain era and be his badass reaper love, and you're worried about propriety??
K: Honestly, I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to say that Thaddeus, the ghost in the library, was the character I liked and related to the most.
"My name is Thaddeus. Thaddeus Kipling. I'd have read every book in [the library] by now, except they keep bringing more in."
J: If the sequel isn't about Thaddeus the library ghost and his quest to finish all the books, I don't want it.
The atmosphere and setting of Belladonna pulled most of the weight. The autumnal and wintery weather, gloomy manor, nearly-abandoned library and garden, apothecary with its snarky elderly owner, and ghosts all came together to create a cozy dark vibe that was on point.
J: Death and the book's setting are precisely why I suffered through the main character and why I'm so disappointed. It's the books with an amazing premise and heavy aesthetics that let us down the hardest when they don't live up. The descriptions are beautiful and, if nothing else, the languishing, dreary atmosphere is everything you could want out of a gothic read.
The first thing she heard upon entering was the quiet rushing of water, joined by a choir of croaking frogs. The soil was rich and ripe for autumn, bearing an abundance of wolfsbane, fragrant orange and red chrysanthemums, pansies with a deep purple that bled into their yellow petals, blooming witch hazel, and dozens of striking plants she'd never seen before. Across from them were rows of browning, unharvested herbs, and, farther back, bushes of nightshade. Though untended, the garden didn't feel unkempt [...]. Aglow in the setting sun, this garden felt alive and wild with magic.
K: To be honest, the atmosphere and Death are pretty much the only reasons I did not DNF this book. I am holding onto hope that Foxglove will improve upon Belladonna's weaker points while continuing to serve up dark, enchanting vibes that we can't get enough of.
Belladonna wasn't quite the book we hoped it would be. Though a gothic Victorian setting and Death as a love interest were certainly strong suits, we were let down by a plot that seemed thrown together last-minute and a shallow main character whom we felt did not suit her role in the story or someone Death would believably be infatuated with. The final reveal came out of nowhere and made zero sense, but perhaps that can be attributed to Signa paying hardly any attention to the mystery between her pining for a glamorous lifestyle and every handsome gentleman who crossed her path.
Thank you for tuning in to our first buddy review! We had so much fun reading this book together, ranting and raving, and sharing our thoughts with you lovely folks, and we look forward to doing it again in the future.
If you've read this book, let us know what you thought in the comments below, or on one of our social media pages. You can find us dishing out our own cozy darkness on bookstagram or lurking around on Twitter.