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Not Good for Maidens by Toni Bovalino from @TitanBooks

Not Good for Maidens by Toni Bovalino

Titan Books, pb, £8.27

Reviewed by Melody Bowles

The front cover for Not Good for Maidens by Toni Bovalino. There is a collection of beautiful fruits and flowers with a death head moth sitting on top of them. The background is a dark blue.

Not Good For Maidens retells Christina Rossetti’s famous poem Goblin Market. The book’s evocative descriptions of the titular market are the best thing about it, offering up both unlikely wonders and bone-chilling horrors.

The book is separated into two narrative strands – one set from the perspective of almost-witch May eighteen years ago and one in the present day following May’s niece Lou. Lou’s half of the narrative is heavily weighed down by exposition until the book’s second half. While it’s important to understand how the characters relate to each other for the emotional pay-offs later, it leads to a glacial pace at the beginning of the book.

The present narrative often lets you in on what happened in the past and vice versa, leading to some moment killers as the reader waits for the characters to catch up with them. The life-and-death stakes of the market in the past suffer when you know what’s going on in the present.

The unexpectedly sweet but fraught and forbidden human/goblin romance between May and Eitra gives a compelling reason to keep reading, at least. Lou obeying the market rules is sensible but not nearly as fun or intriguing as watching May break every single rule the witches give her. For that reason, I found May’s half of the narrative far more enjoyable.

The descriptions of what goblins do to humans (dismemberment, consumption) make for some immaculate moments of horror. The fate of humans who need help from the York coven of witches offers gruesome flashes of body horror, too, making one wonder if surviving the goblins is perhaps a fate worse than death.

The real draw of this book is the setting. The market is an underground labyrinth selling goblin fruit and human body parts. The corridors shift behind the characters to disorientate them. The goblins try and trick visitors to stay long past their three allotted days of safety and don’t bother hiding what happens to those who do.

Read Not Good For Maidens if you’d like to visit the Goblin Market from Rossetti’s poem – the setting is the real star of this book.

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