Monstrous Designs by Kat Dunn
Zephyr, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Heidi Ranger
The Battalion of the Dead is divided. Camille and Al are in London, searching for Olympe, a young female with strange powers. Ada is in Paris with Guil, spying on the Duc, trying to anticipate his next move. But when their paths collide, are their loyalties to one another enough, or is this the end of the Battalion?
Monstrous Designs is the second in Dunn’s series about a group of young men and women rescuing people from the French Revolution. Their plans change in the first novel when they save Olympe and discover she has an unusual power and that her ‘father’ is not what he seems. From what I gather, having not read Dangerous Remedy, there are many twists and turns, especially in the characters’ romantic relationships, ending with a huge betrayal. And therein lies my main issue with this story.
I don’t mind reading a book that’s part of a series if I haven’t read the others. I consider it a test of the author whether they can get me up to speed on the key details. Billed as readable either as a standalone or part of the series, I had high hopes, yet success was only partially achieved. I understood the basics of what had happened, Olympe’s rescue and subsequent kidnap, but beyond that, I felt a little lost. For example, James was Camille’s fiancée until she met Ada, and he is Olympe’s kidnapper, a course of action he took to win his father’s approval. But because I hadn’t been on this journey with James, his crucial learning moments lost their impact.
I also didn’t buy into Camille or Ada. Their decision-making process seemed to centre around feelings of insecurity without the other one and picking a course of action they felt the other would do. Yet some of their decisions were strange. Partway through, Ada decides she could achieve more if she sided with the Duc, a choice that puts her working against the Battalion and Camille. I didn’t understand why. She has a minor disagreement with a companion about a risky course of action, and that is all she needs to switch sides. Possibly, had I read the Dangerous Remedy, this would have made perfect sense. But it didn’t, and that distanced me further from the characters.
The chapters are quite short, which means the story moves at quite a decent pace, and each chapter is dedicated to either Ada, Camille or James. It is also well written, so in terms of following this particular section of the overall story of the Battalion of the Dead, there were no issues keeping track of characters and locations. I just missed the emotional connection I may have formed if I’d read the first book.
I feel like this book would have benefitted from being longer, something I don’t often say. Ada and Camille’s relationship is central to much of the decision making, whether it is their own or James as the jilted fiancé. But I never truly felt James’s wretchedness as everything falls apart or Camille’s real pain when she agrees to go ahead with her marriage to James even though it means she won’t have Ada anymore. I am a sucker for Recency-esque and LGBTQ+ romance, so Monstrous Designs should have offered me everything I wanted, but without the detail, it fell a little flat for me. This is no reflection on Dunn’s writing. She is clean and concise, I just wanted more.
For anyone who has read Dangerous Remedy, I suspect Monstrous Designs will more than live up to their expectations, with their favourite characters in dangerous situations and forced between their hearts and their heads when making their decisions. If you haven’t read the first book but feel that it is your thing, dashing young heroines and a strong LGBTQ voice, then I would recommend starting at the beginning rather than jumping in here.