Dance of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

Dance of the Red Death (cover)A review by Evie Kendal

The second novel of a two-book young adult dystopian fiction series, Dance of the Red Death picks up immediately from where its predecessor, Masque of the Red Death, left off. The book opens with protagonist, Araby Worth, travelling aboard a flying airship alongside both love interests from the previous novel, Will and Elliott. In addition to the members of the already established love triangle, Araby’s best friend, April, several children, and one prisoner are also crammed onto this unusual ship, all fleeing their plague-ridden home city.

Chapter two begins with the following, from the protagonist’s perspective:

My father is a murderer. My brother is dead, and my best friend is dying of the disease that my father may have created. It’s a refrain that’s repeated over and over in my mind, through feverish dreams, and even now. And yet … my father is the gentlest man I know. He saved us from the contagion. I put my hand to the porcelain mask covering my face – my father’s greatest invention (9).

If you need more backstory than what has been outlined above, you have no choice but to go back and read the first novel of the series, because this is all the information you’ll get if, like me, you enter the story at this point. As such, my first observation is that book two is certainly not written as a stand-alone text. Griffin is writing for an existing readership, one whose members are expected to have already “picked a side” between Team Will and Team Elliott. (Although maintaining a pro-Will stance is particularly difficult since he traded Araby and her father’s journal in Masque to the villain, Malcontent, in exchange for his siblings.)

While it may not be entirely fair to complain that the sequel doesn’t function as an entry-level text, a little more effort to recap important details from book one would have been good. Details of the various evils the young people must face in their quest to save their city are rather vague but within the first few chapters it is clear there is a contagion, the red death, an advancing swamp, the rebel Malcontent and the mad Prince Prospero to deal with. How they intend to fight these evils is the cause of much disagreement between the lead characters and accounts for much of the narrative tension of the novel.

While Masque of the Red Death is the novel that is named for Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic horror story, it is the sequel Dance of the Red Death that Griffin actually considers to be the “reimagining” of Poe’s original tale. Complete with a masquerade ball at Prince Prospero’s abbey, Dance of the Red Death has much in common with Poe’s story, and was re-cast as a steampunk post-apocalyptic historical tale in order to align the tales chronologically.

The general consensus among fans of the first novel seems to be that the sequel lacks momentum, and this was certainly something I noticed as well. The mystery of why Araby would allow two guys to stick around who had either
a) sold her out to the enemy or
b) dangled her over diseased and crocodile-infested water
is also rather difficult to fathom. Overall most of the “good” characters are so severely flawed that it is hard to identify with any of them, even when contrasted to the depraved “bad” characters like Prospero.

While the feel of the sequel suggests some masterful world-building was achieved in its parent text, more description of this world would be beneficial, particularly at the start of the novel. This is not just for new readers but also for returning fans who have spent a long time between installments.

The darkness of the fictional world as it descends further into chaos is captured well although the sense of what was lost lacks force in the absence of reminders of the lavish world that existed before disease ravaged the city. Isolated memories of the Debauchery Club are all that remain of Araby’s former life, which leaves a hole in her personal history, making her a less interesting character in the sequel.

In terms of recommendations, Dance of the Red Death is suitable for both young adult and adult readers (but only those not likely to be distressed by graphic descriptions of weeping wounds!). Since it is only a two-book series it is definitely worth starting at the beginning. The Poe references are a nice touch and I look forward to someday reading Griffin’s other Poe-inspired book, The Fall