“The story of the ugly duckling was never about the cygnet discovering he is lovely. It is not a story about realizing you have become beautiful.
It is about the sudden understanding that you are something other than what you thought you were, and that what you are is more beautiful than what you once thought you had to be.”
Rarely am I captivated by a book so fully that I do nothing but read, and read, …and read. I picked up Blanca & Roja on January 27th after giving a friend the choice to pick my next read from my TBR basket (a small wooden basket that I keep 4-5 books very high on my TBR in). She picked the novel because of it’s gorgeous cover and beautiful typography, not having any idea what the book was actually about. I went in head first, not expecting much. What I read BLEW MY MIND. Fairy tales, sisters, love, queerness! Everything about this novel pulled me as fiercely as Roja’s voice.
I finished the book last night, in 3 days, with only breaks for working and sleeping. I even read while I ate and did housework. I could NOT put it down. Usually, I write a review and post it the following week – however, I loved this book so much that I KNEW I had to get a review out PRONTO!
So without further rambling, I present — BLANCA & ROJA.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From GoodReads: The biggest lie of all is the story you think you already know.
The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.
But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.
“A story about two sisters, a prince who got turned into a bear, and all the ways magic can save you but also fuck you up. “
Character Development: ★★★★★
the writing: ★★★★★
Usually, I go poking around at reviews before I finish a book. Just to see what others have thought about it, see what I should be expecting etc. I did not do that this time, and when I finally updated my “I’M FINISHED!” button on GoodReads, I was SHOCKED to see that the book was only a 3.68 star rating. THIS BOOK IS A 5 STAR READ SO SIT DOWN HATERS!
There are 4 POVs, Blanca, Roja, Yearling, and Page. While some balk at the amount of first person jumping, this made the story so much better! Because of the intricate weaving of tales, each POV lends a unique and insightful twist, seeing the world through different lenses to complete the picture.
the plot: ★★★★★
I had no idea that it was an own voices novel when I went into it. Nor was I aware that it was a queer novel. Let me tell thee all the ways my heart does sing.
I’ve read a lot of retellings, but none of them handled quite the way McLemore merged Swan Lake, Snow White & Rose Red, and The Bear Prince. There are elements of all three tales woven together so perfectly, it’s hard to decipher which is which. It made the old stories feel new and fresh, a world that we know so well, yet do not know at all.
Through the use of stunningly beautiful metaphors, they bring to life a world that seamlessly blends our reality with that of a fairy tale while targeting social issues relatable to a wide scope of people- from systematic homophobia, transphobia and devistatingly real internalized colorism, to family dynamics and the devistating consquences of standing up for what’s right.
Despite all of the heart ache and pain suffered, McLemore shines a light on how we can be the heroes of our own story and take back the narrative from those who wish to shape it themselves — allowing us to be what we are, and what we want to be, regardless of the boxes others mold around us.
“…but I would not let the swans write our story for us.”
the characters: ★★★★★
The title characters, Blanca & Roja, are the best kind of sisters. Sisters who love each other so deeply, they are united against the world. The bond between them is part of the magic of the novel; the love woven into everything they did – spilling over to the others in their lives. They want, more than anything, to save each other – even when that means giving up the ones they love and their own autonomy.
Only once before have I related to, understood, or loved a character as much as I love Roja. (That was Cyra from Carve the Mark, if you are at all interested!) Roja – bright, fierce, fiery Roja – with her jagged edges, loud attitude, and desperate desire to be accepted and loved the way her sister is.
Roja, despite her efforts, cannot conform the way Blanca can. She has a quick, sharp tongue, a heart so red it set her hair a flame, and passion to rival any one she encountered. Her personality was fire, while Blanca was water – and I loved her so much for it.
Roja’s relationship with her father endeared her to me even more. They had such a tight knit bond, her father always doing what he could to look out for her. His love for her is fierce and protective – believing that she would be the chosen sister; urging her to fight for her chance at survival. His words to her resonated through me, even long after I’d finished the book.
“Let them see you,” my father said. “Let the swans see that you’re a girl that deserves to live.”
Roja pulls so much strength from her father and his belief in her. So much so that her will to fight comes from his words, echoed back in her mind. This is something that kindled the memories of my own father, connecting me deeper to Roja and her experiences.
Blanca, on the other hand, was a very surprising character. She played her role, the sweet, demure Blanca with hair of gold and eyes of chocolate brown, and lighter skin color. This is a source of contention, mentioned many times – and it is truly heartbreaking how each sister deals with their skin.
Her only desire through the entire novel was to save her sister – even when faced with making a decision between her own heart and her sister’s. Blanca is a complex and layered character, which made her chapters intense and emotional. Her love for Roja was palpable.
“If the swans can’t tell us apart”
…”they can’t decide which of us to take.”
Blanca’s efforts to protect Roja are what drove her, and even when mistakes were made, she did them solely out of thought for her sister, even when that choice is what splits them so deeply.
A fair tale would not be complete without a pair of swoon worthy love interests. Enter Page and Yearling. These boys are the epitome of broken, softhearted boys.
“That brown caught me. Against the aspen-yellow of her hair, the color was as startling as it was beautiful. This girl was her own woods, gold and brown.”
Page Ashby, the local apple farmer’s boy was the love interest that caught me, and held my heart. Page is non-binary (possibly trans), living in a small town that doesn’t really understand or embrace the idea of it. The relationship that develops between Blanca and Page is probably the sweetest thing I’ve ever read.
“Him and Her. I kinda like getting called both. Its like all of me gets seen then. … Most people can’t get their head around boy and she at the same time, I guess.”
Blanca approaches Page with such tenderness and compassion, it’s easy to see how Page fell for her. Their relationship needed no explanation, no order – it was just them – loving each other, despite the magic that pulled them apart.
The final POV comes from Yearling – or Barclay Holt- the rich white boy from the ‘respectable’ family in town. Yearling harbors secrets of his own though, including a family filled with violence. His escape causes a ripple in the town, including pulling Page into the magical woods that surround the mysterious Del Cisne family.
“I had gone to the woods already broken, and now I had collected so many other way of being broken, I could barely carry them.”
I really felt like Yearling was the real story, a blue eyed boy who came in to their world, tangling up two girls’ fate within his own. Through bits and whispers, we discover that Barclay has a secret that will not only break his family, but shatter the entire town in the process.
The magical realism that floods through McLemore’s writing makes her world’s engaging, lush, and vivid. Whether seeing the story through Blanca, Roja, Page, or Yearling, the core of the novel is a powerfully moving story of friendship, sisterhood, family, and taking back your own story from those that would write it for you. I cannot think of a single down fall of this novel – aside from it being over!
Swan Lake meets Snow White & Rose Red in this fantastical tale of two sisters determined to save each other from the curse that terrorizes their family. While Blanca is determined to give herself to the swans to save Roja, Roja is struggling to accept that she is the sister, loud and brash when compared to the sweet and elegant Blanca, that will be leaving her girl-body behind. When two boys who had vanished the fall before cross paths with the cursed sisters, a new magic begins to work its way through their lives and their hearts. Anna – Marie McLemore has crafted a QUEER fairy tale for the ages, dripping with romance, sisterly love, and wickedly beautiful prose – Blanca & Roja set the world on fire as they save everyone they love. Bonuses for LGBTQ rep in form of Latinx, Bisexual, Lesbian, and Non-Binary! 5/5 Stars from the Book Dragon!
About the Author:
Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by their family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. They are the author of THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature; WILD BEAUTY, a Kirkus Best Book of 2017; and BLANCA & ROJA, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. DARK AND DEEPEST RED, a reimagining of The Red Shoes based on true medieval events, is forthcoming in January 2020.