Format: Hardcover, 447 pages
Dancing with someone is an act of trust. Elegant and intimate; you're close enough to kiss, close enough to feel your partner's heartbeat. But for Vanessa, dance is deadly – and she must be very careful who she trusts . . .
Vanessa Adler attends an elite ballet school – the same one her older sister, Margaret, attended before she disappeared. Vanessa feels she can never live up to her sister's shining reputation. But Vanessa, with her glorious red hair and fair skin, has a kind of power when she dances – she loses herself in the music, breathes different air, and the world around her turns to flames . . .
Soon she attracts the attention of three men: gorgeous Zep, mysterious Justin, and the great, enigmatic choreographer Josef Zhalkovsky. When Josef asks Vanessa to dance the lead in the Firebird, she has little idea of the danger that lies ahead – and the burning forces about to be unleashed .
The following review is based on an eARC provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
I’m going to be honest: I first became aware of this book when the beautiful cover was revealed (and it’s perfect for the story), but I was also immediately drawn to the description. It made me think of two movies: Suspiria (horror film from the 70s) and Black Swan. And I guess there kind of are parallels to both, but also tremendous differences… anyway, I was hoping for creepy, and creepy I got, albeit not in a way I thought. This song from the Suspriria soundtrack fits really well though...
At first, I immediately bonded with Vanessa because of her love for her older sister, Margaret. Vanessa only really started dancing because of her, and only began to aim for excellence after Margaret disappeared, because she realized it was helping her mother feel better. Everyone thinks Margaret ran away because she couldn’t take the pressure at the NY ballet school, but Vanessa doesn’t really buy it. She hopes her sister is still out there somewhere and she wants to find out why she ran away. I love sister relationships, and I don’t even want to imagine what I’d feel like in Vanessa’s situation. If my younger sister disappeared, I’d do absolutely anything in the hope to find her!
At her new school, Vanessa makes friends pretty much immediately, and I liked that the group was fairly diverse. I’ve read that other reviewers found those secondary characters flat, but I’d have to disagree. They are clearly distinguishable, but their personalities are often revealed indirectly between the lines. The conversations among them reveal the hardships of being a dancer at this level: the pain, the fear to gain weight, to not be good enough, the jealousy of others’ success, how hard it was for some of them to get into the school… it's a struggle for body and soul.
The character I loved most is Blaine! At first you think he’s this typical effeminate gay boy, but there’s so much more to him! I felt that his understanding and experience of dance was closest to Vanessa and that as it became clear that she’s an outstandingly talented dancer, he was the only one to really stick to her without jealousy and try to profit from her example.
There is something Vanessa rarely admits to anyone: sometimes when she’s really losing herself in the dance, the steps just fall into place, and she feels like she’s disappearing and the room is starting to spin around her… this scares her. But those moments are when she’s best. So good, in fact, that she gets cast as the lead in the production of the Firebird as the second freshman ever.
Turns out the first one was her sister. Also turns out that quite a few other principal ballerinas in that role disappeared over the years, so Vanessa and her friends start trying to figure out what is going on, and what it might be about this particular ballet that makes it so difficult. Is it that special, arrhythmic ‘Danse du Feu’ that their harsh instructor, Joseph, makes the core cast practice every afternoon, the dance that gives Vanessa so much trouble? And why are the walls of that practice room charred black anyway? And what is that strange-smelling rosin Joseph keeps in his room? As Vanessa tries to uncover and connect the pieces of this puzzle, she is drawn ever-deeper into a web of deception, ambition, and dark powers… for the right dance and the right dancer can open doors.
I admit that while I liked Vanessa, I also often felt frustrated with her. Why didn’t she do more to look for her sister? Why did she cave so easily to the ones around her? The again she was very obstinate at other times, but never the right ones. Also, there’s a love triangle… sort of. Vanessa’s dance partner, Zep, is seriously gorgeous… the prince of the school. At first I thought he’d be this shallow, perfect character, but when he takes Vanessa out for a date we learn that there’s more to him and he’s apparently a good guy. The two of them are really cute together and Yelena Black captures a great New York atmosphere in those scenes! But then Zep gets really distant and weird and starts avoiding Vanessa. And Justin, who was nothing but a jerk to her before but whom she nevertheless had a reaction to, comes to the forefront again. I was really exasperated with Vanessa at times about how she behaved around the both of them! Then again, she’s only 15… I just wished she would have put her foot down once in a while and demanded answers – from both guys!! Because Justin makes all these obscure remarks about strange things that happen at the school, and he knew her sister. It soon becomes clear that Vanessa can only trust one boy… but who is it?
What made this book great for me despite my sometimes-problems with Vanessa is Yelena Black’s wonderful writing. I don’t know all that much about ballet, but the way she described the dance allowed me to picture it all perfectly – the grace, the pain, the exhilaration… all the emotions the dancers participate in, the way they strain their bodies for the perfect expression. The writing was fluid and beautiful, capturing the atmosphere and passion of the dance along with the movements.
Her style was also responsible for giving me goose-bumps a few times as Vanessa grows more paranoid and, after a middle part that sometimes felt a big sluggish, things unravel and twist very quickly towards the end! There were some issues I’d seen coming for a while, but there were also developments that left me going ‘what the hell just happened?!?’ The paranormal element is revealed much later than I expected, but now that the cards are on the table I’m really intrigued by the world building around it, and very curious about the next book in the series!
All in all, I can recommend Yelena Black's debut to anyone who loves lyrical writing, mystery, and has an interest in dancing. Despite a flawed heroine, there was always enough going on to make me want to keep reading and I really couldn’t figure out which guy was the right match for Vanessa. I also liked the structural concept of the novel, regardless of what I said about the pacing. It’s a slow build up, but ultimately very much worth it!
Have you read Dance of Shadows? What did you think of it? If not, are you intrigued? Did my review even make sense? Have you read other ballet-themed novels you can recommend?