Release date: 4 April 2023 (13 April 2023 UK)
Narrators: Alex Wingfield, Rebecca Norfolk
Book boxes: Maaayyybbeeee FairyLoot? OwlCrate? Locked Library (the book will be released through Magpie in the UK)?
Synopsis: After centuries of sleep, the gods are warring again. But eighteen-year-old Iris Winnow just wants to hold her family together. Her mother is suffering from addiction and her brother is missing from the front lines. Her best bet is to win the columnist promotion at the Oath Gazette.
To combat her worries, Iris writes letters to her brother and slips them beneath her wardrobe door, where they vanish―into the hands of Roman Kitt, her cold and handsome rival at the paper. When he anonymously writes Iris back, the two of them forge a connection that will follow Iris all the way to the front lines of battle: for her brother, the fate of mankind, and love.
When two young rival journalists find love through a magical connection, they must face the depths of hell, in a war among gods, to seal their fate forever. Shadow and Bone meets Lore in this epic enemies-to-lovers fantasy novel filled with hope and heartbreak, and the unparalleled power of love.
Set in an England-esque land closely resembling a World War I/World War II time period complete with portable typewriters and a war with fronts, Divine Rivals sets a somewhat fantastical stage for a rivals-to-lovers romance with loads of other tropes thrown in for good measure. Iris Winnow and Roman Kitt compete for a spot on the staff of a reputable newspaper, the Oath Gazette. As the title and synopsis of the series suggest, Iris eventually makes her way to the front of the war as a correspondent. Reminiscent of the magical pen pal exchanges in The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, including the aspect where the man knows with whom he corresponds but the woman does not, the two continue to exchange letters magically while falling completely in love with one another. Unfortunately, what I expected to be a brilliant YA fantasy romance turned out to be a very busy plot with haphazard, superficial world building and no clear focus as to what kind of story this book aims for.
I feel there are many things this book tries to be, but it doesn’t quite succeed at being any or even one of them. It is simultaneously a war-time romance, pen-pal romance, supernatural-gods-and-vengeance story, Hades and Persephone retelling, and many others that are too numerous to list. To begin, the enemies-to-lovers aspect starts off strongly, but our two main characters barely have any on-page, face-to-face interactions to build tension before we see them start to exchange letters via magical means (hint: it’s not the wardrobe). They are also not technically rival journalists, but I’ll leave the details of that statement for readers to figure when they read the book. It is somewhat a fantasy, as it’s set in a different world from ours with dead gods (or asleep gods) and different names for days of the week, with tiny touches of magic here and there; but it is clearly based off of our world with a setting and time period around World War II, except the Germans don’t drop the bombs on the London-esque city (Avalon Bluff), wyverns from a Hades-type god do.
The book is relatively short, sub 400 pages, for a fantasy novel (though it is a duology, so in total, it’s probably going to be 760-800 pages). I feel there is a lot lost with Divine Rivals because of how similar the world is to ours during early 20th Century time period of the world wars. If not for the casual mentions of mythical beings and gods and 21st century practices like same-sex marriage, it would be historical fiction. I would call it fantasy-lite or fantasy-adjacent. As it is, it feels more like a puzzle was just stuck together with pieces that kinda fit and were forced together to say it was done. It may have been better to just write around 550 pages and trim down the excess to make it more polished and put together.
Divine Rivals also does not read like a YA novel (not even an upper-YA novel). The themes are very adult, corresponding to the age range of the characters, who are all 18 or older. It doesn’t fit a typical trope for YA novels, such as coming-of-age.
I’m pretty bummed the past few books from Ross have just been giant disappointments for me; they just don’t feel like they’re written by the same author. This one in particular would have been better as a historical fiction because that is essentially how it reads. The magic system and world building don’t feel organic enough and act as gimmicky clutter instead, and it's also derivative of the author’s two previous novels, A River Enchanted and A Fire Endless, with its use of music as a magical power (complete with a magical harp player) over the conflicting gods of the narrative. Readers who are new to Ross starting with Dreams Lie Beneath or A River Enchanted will find this book fits the writing style, but those who have been reading Ross since the 2018 debut of The Queen’s Rising may have to squint a bit at the world building and plotting to find a resemblance.
On a good note, the narrators for this audiobook were fantastic. For those two lovely readers, I heartily give 5 stars. The voices were crisp and very easy to hear even with an increased speed. I always find narrators to be excellent if they make an average book into a compulsive listen because they are so pleasant to hear. I highly recommend giving this one a listen en lieu of reading physically, whether in whole or in part, if at all possible.
My thanks to NetGalley and Wednesday/St. Martin's/Macmillan for the ALC and the eARC, for which I willingly give my own, honest opinion.