If you thought Milena McKay wrote meaningful and clever (and really hot) books, you were off the mark. Not entirely wrong but there’s so much more to her writing than that, which she reveals book after book, slowly, patiently. Just as she went one step further with The Headmistress than with The Delicate Things We Make, she goes one step further again with A Whisper of Solace (another very beautiful title by the way, and not just because it includes one of my favourite words).
The things we do for love… Neve Blackthorne, CEO of Gannon McMillan Pictures, one of the Big Six studios in Hollywood, has been shagging Audrey Avens, one of her employees, for a few months and she wants out. Not because she doesn’t want the younger woman anymore but because she wants her too much. She has too much to lose if the affair is discovered, she believes. Unable to stay away, she’ll try by all possible means to push Audrey away.
There’s a lot more to this story than I’ve just written, I barely touched on the surface there. Not one to back away from a challenge, McKay elected to tell this story from the ice queen’s point of view, which means giving readers insight into all the ugly before we’re allowed to see the beautiful. Usually, we get to know the ice queen character through the eyes of the one who falls for her, the qualities that make her worthy of love at the forefront. In A Whisper of Solace, what’s most visible for the longest time is Neve’s tortured mind, her justifications for her actions and choices. It is quite a feat to get the reader to love her, to root for her despite seeing into her darkest recesses, beyond the lies of outlandish proportions she tells herself not to crumble.
Her saving grace – the one we first encounter, as she has a lot more than one once she opens up – is her will to change, if not herself, at least the way she handles the situation that frightens her most of all. Each chapter opens with Neve and her therapist, with Neve resisting therapy but still going, then Neve accepting that maybe it’s not so bad.
As in her previous books, McKay never gives her characters any break. They have to earn any potential positive thing happening to them. Life is rarely kind, why should it be any different in a story like this one? In Neve’s case, it’s even more flagrant because really, would she deserve a break? When she’s caused so much pain, whatever her reasons and excuses may be? This whole book is about her atoning, growing, healing.
A Whisper of Solace will probably not be to everyone’s taste. It’s layer upon layer of pain on top of fear on top of more angst. There aren’t a lot of authors I’d accept that much from, because it hurts so much. It hurts so good. Anna Burke comes to mind, but that’s about it. Not everyone can write pain so well. It’s not gratuitous, it’s not there for shock value, it has purpose, it has meaning, it makes sense, albeit in a very twisted way.
In that regard, there’s a scene I dreaded reading in this book because it hurts for real. It hurts Neve, it hurts Audrey, it hurts me. I understand its purpose, both for Neve and for the story, and it’s rather brilliant, honestly. But damn, it hurts, it pushes me out of my comfort zone in a way that is much more disconcerting than any physical violence I’ve read, because it feels so real. It’s another reminder that McKay doesn’t write fluffy, that, much as Anna Burke, she doesn’t shy away from the misery inflicted on her characters, and will break my heart many times before making it whole again.
Very often, the Ice Queen trope is all about melting the ice queen. While there is some definitive melting here, what Neve Blackthorne goes through is more of a meltdown over the course of several years. It’s fascinating to watch this extremely powerful, extremely self-contained woman in her professional life be so very clueless when it comes to her heart and what makes her happy. It’s equally fascinating that while she believes she’s in control of her life, that she holds the power, she’s completely powerless both with Audrey and over her own life. And when she does regain control, somewhat on her terms, it’s glorious.
Audrey, on the other side, is like a hardened version of Jameson (The Delicate Things We Make) and Sam (The Headmistress). She’s all soft and starry-eyed at first – though already very much an equal to Neve – until Neve breaks her and Audrey glues herself back together with pain and fury. The image that came to mind at that moment is that of a woman who’s been hurt so badly that when a supernatural force brings her back to life, she now is a supervillain or at the very least a being with superpowers fueled by a desire for revenge that she needs to learn to harness. Audrey has too big a heart to become a villain and obsess about revenge, however. She fights her love for Neve, tries to save herself only to get pulled back because she understands Neve a lot better than Neve thinks, a lot better than Neve understands herself. It’s this understanding of who Neve is deep inside that makes Audrey unable to shirk this all-encompassing love, to free herself. Whereas Neve needs to earn her happy ever after, Audrey deserves it from the start, simply for being who she is, bright, beautiful (inside and out), brave.
Having read the fanfiction this story started as before getting my impatient eyes on this book, I’m impressed at how much work went into making it stand on its own feet, so to say. Neve’s arc is the same but almost everything else has been thought anew, blossoming into a book twice as long as the original story. And the cover, Em Schreiber’s work once again, is perfection.
Even as she drops the reader right in the middle of the action, McKay takes her time. There’s no rushing this story. Just like it will take years for Neve to earn her happy ending, getting to know her, to know the real person behind the public persona and, more than that, the person behind who Neve believes she is, must be earned too. The journey, thankfully, is not as painful for the reader as it is for Neve yet neither is it smooth sailing. But hey, that’s the price to pay for genuine character growth.
The pace is very interesting. It starts rather slowly, setting the scene, the atmosphere, a bit like the overture of an opera or a ballet, giving glimpses of what’s to come without revealing anything yet. Then as the story unfolds, the pace picks up, gathering momentum until the end which left me with a rush of adrenaline by the time I turned the last page.
As I’ve come to expect from Milena McKay, the writing is gorgeous and powerful, each word precisely chosen, so many details that don’t necessarily register on the surface but make this book the stunning read it is. The sacrosanct rule of showing and not telling can be respected in more ways than simply adding dialogues but it takes skills to write long inner thoughts without losing pace. That tongue-in-cheekiness I mentioned in my review for the audiobook of The Delicate Things We Make is there too. It’s not obvious, not in your face (McKay isn’t the in-your-face kind anyway), but it’s there, alleviating the tension here and there, in small, necessary touches.
I read this book twice before posting my review, there are so many layers. It’s raw and painful and funny and exhilarating, all at once. McKay’s definitively won her place on my favourite authors list, authors I can count on to give me food for thought while entertaining me at the same time.
Update, May 23rd: If you want more Audrey, in a much lighter mood, check out this free story, 20 Questions with Hurricane Audrey. And if you like the 20-questions idea, find your favourite authors’ answers on McKay’s blog.
Update, August 6th: Also available (and also free), 20-ish Questions with Neve Blackthorne.
A Whisper of Solace @ amazon
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