Sunday, January 21, 2024

Not Good For Maidens


Tori Bovalino's Not Good For Maidens is a riff on Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market. In Not Good For Maidens, a young woman from a bloodline of witches is faced with the daunting task of venturing into the goblin market in search of her beloved aunt who may have fallen prey to the goblins' enticements. Running parallel to that story is the tale of a different aunt's tragic involvement with the goblin market in the past. Overall, Not Good For Maidens is a decent read, particularly for younger readers, but I do think it could have gone much harder, especially given the rich context of Rossetti's poem. The problem with Not Good For Maidens is that living up to the promise and power of Rossetti's poem is not a task many modern authors are really equipped to tackle. The best thing this novel can do is lead young readers to Rossetti's poetry.

As a riff on a classic Victorian poem, Not Good For Maidens is not the book I think it should be, which may well be an unfair criticism, but I think comparison between the novel and Rossetti's poem is inevitable given the context. To my mind, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market is a poem of seductive horrors. In contrast, Bovalino's novel is planted too firmly in the young adult "urban fantasy" mode, and any seduction is in short supply within its pages. Though there is horrific content in it, Not Good For Maidens soft-pedals where it should attempt to disturb and challenge the reader. The form of the novel also detracts from its themes; the prose needs to be more seductive, artful, and brimming with monstrous excess, and the words need to carry more sexual threat. Without that, Not Good For Maidens feels pale and fainting in comparison to the strenuous ardor of Rossetti's poem.

Case in point, the protagonist is notably asexual, so the potential to do something interesting by juxtaposing the goblin market's enticements against her lack of desire certainly exists--but that element isn't explored in any depth. Similarly, the protagonist's strange, semi-sensual fixation on her aunt doesn't reach the fevered pitch of the powerful and unnameable force of sisterly love in Rossetti's work.

I also question the author's word choice at various points. Too often, the protagonist is "scampering" away in terror. Scampering? That's like saying someone frolicked in dread.

I know that a considered focus on world-building is often a great curse upon all nations, but the world-building in Not Good For Maidens would benefit from narrative clarification or revision because I'm not sure it makes sense. The goblin market seems to be a known quantity (even the British government is aware of it and when people re-emerge from the market with strange injuries and bearing stranger curses, people know to take its victims to a group of witches in York that can help them), but the American protagonist has somehow never heard of it? Despite the fact that her family members are the witches who help people recover from goblin wounds in York?

The way the goblin market and its denizens are portrayed feels unreal, as opposed to fantastical or even dream-like, which works against the book's themes, its characterization, and its coherency. If the goblin market were real and known, there would be YouTubers and TikTokers making crass videos about it. But in the fictive world the novel presents, knowledge of market's existence is vague and often feels like it comes into focus only at the narrative's convenience, making the stakes of Not Good For Maidens feel flimsy and inconsequential as a result.