VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED by Frances White (BOOK REVIEW)
What a book to start 2024 with. Fantasy? Check. Magic? Yep. Humour? Definitely. ‘Closed room’ murder-mystery? 100%.
I went into Voyage of the Damned relatively blind, knowing little about it but intrigued by the basic blurb. There was no way I could anticipate what I was getting into.
Ganymedes (Dee) is the Blessed representative of Fish Province, the lowest cast of Concordia. Once a year, all of the Blessed come together for a massive party on board the Emperor’s ship, ostensibly to work together for the good of their peoples. In reality, this is a political game full of rivalries, alliances and jockeying for power. Dee’s just there because he has to be (and for the food)… until his fellow Blessed start to die, and he seems to be the only one willing to discover the killer.
I have yet to see a summary of this tale that accurately covers exactly what it is, because there’s just so much, yet none of it is difficult to understand. Dee’s a wonderful protagonist and every chapter flies past, providing new information about him, his peers and the universe they inhabit, right up to the last moments (which I defy anyone to see coming). There’s something happening at all times, but it’s all so beautifully drawn that I never found it a challenge to keep up.
The visuals are particularly brilliant. The ship’s décor is beyond ostentatious, there are magical talking mini-dragon servants, and the characters are all clearly delineated by their clothing, manner and even hair colour. This world is vast and varied, and I loved my time exploring what I learned of it.
From the immensity of the ship to the reality of life in each Province, plus the deeply flawed nature of every single Blessed – none of whom are what they outwardly appear to be – the reader is swept along as the days pass and the bodies increase. The tension heightens and Dee’s literal Murder Diagram becomes a tangled mess of love, hate, motivations and secrets against the ticking clock.
It’s also tremendously refreshing to inhabit a place that is so open without having a social agenda. Bisexuality is the norm here, queerness and fluidity is natural, and Dee’s ample figure isn’t typical of a hero but simply who he is. The only discrimination seems based around political power, which seems inevitable in context and very relevant in the world today.
Voyage of the Damned is unique and brilliant, a world that is both magical and very real. It’s a standalone novel, but I anticipate fanfiction and fanart of it arriving soon (I suspect early readers have already started casting if this were ever adapted for TV).
Set time aside when you step aboard, because you won’t be leaving until the ride comes to a complete stop.
Oh and by the way: I’d just like to mention the final paragraph of the Acknowledgments (the part nobody reads, but should):
Bookshelves can be a terrifying place for debut writers, especially those who are marginalized. Writers who are queer, trans, BIPOC, disabled, working class or otherwise marginalized fight tooth and nail for their stories to be told in a world that often seems increasingly unwelcoming to them. By buying, reading and sharing these books, you are sending the message that these people and their stories matter. That they deserve to be heard. Never underestimate the power you hold, readers.
Voyage of the Damned is available now! You can order your copy from Bookshop.org