Rating: 3 stars
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Violetta Benedetti has finally freed herself, from the literal prison of her assigned-male-at-birth body and the figurative prison of her father’s home. Now, she lives as she has always dreamed: in the flower district, close to her friend’s business, where others who like and understand her are free to be themselves. If her childhood friend, Tibario Gianbellicci, happens to stop by and offer the same intimate friendship they’ve always enjoyed, then that is enough for Violetta. It has to be, for she fears revealing how much more she desires from Tibario would push him away. After all, dreams left unspoken are dreams left unbroken.
Tibario has spent his life trying to please his mother. And for the last several years, that plan has included plots and plans to depose Casilio Benedetti from his position as head of Vermagna. Bad enough the man has all but recreated society to sustain his rule unquestioned, but he has used and abused his own child to clinch his power. Tibario didn’t anticipate dying in the process, or being resurrected as a near-immortal. But it gives him a chance to change, to admit his feelings for Violetta, and to finally be there for her when she needs him. The only caveat is that both Tibario and Violetta only let their guards down because of a prophecy Violetta makes—one that assures both of them, all their friends and family, and the entire country are wiped out in an effort to finally break Casilio’s stranglehold over them.
The Calyx Charm is the third and final installment in May Peterson’s The Sacred Dark series. The blurb for The Calyx Charm really appealed to me: trans main character who’s not really there to explain the transition process, but just be herself now that she can; forbidden friendships (Violetta and Tibario’s families hate each other…or at the very least, get pitted against each other); secret love affairs; magic; mind control; and second chances. After reading the blurbs for the other two books, I figured I was safe to pick this one up without having read the others. The blurbs read as standalone and the stories didn’t seem to build on one another. After I started reading, however, I learned that Tibario’s younger brother is Mio, an MC in the first book of the series (Lord of the Last Heartbeat). Throughout the book, I never could shake the feeling that I was missing something that might have been explained in the earlier two books. My critique on the writing closely mirrors that of Kris’ on Lord of Last Heartbeat: it feels like there is a lot going on that the author just fails to convey on page.
Despite the feeling that I was never quite wholly immersed in Violetta’s world, I did feel like I got swept up in her passion for Tibario and Tibario’s passion for her. Maybe it was a little cheesy that Violetta initially rejects Tibario because she firmly believes it’s better to never love than to love and lose. But shying away from grabbing what she wants (and when it’s clearly being offered) does extend sweet moments of Violetta and Tibario simply enjoying friendship, because they still want to spend time together, even if it doesn’t include anything romantic/sexual. And eventually, Tibario’s consistent presence and willingness to be and do what Violetta wants helps her learn it’s okay to desire physical love, that she’s worthy and deserving of it. The idea that Violetta has not been “worthy” or “deserving” of real love has quite often been central to her sexual relationships. It was made sufficiently clear that the majority of her past sexual partners viewed her more as a curiosity and often judged/compared her body, seeing her as a novelty. Tibario is a pretty stark contrast, seeming to often seek consent and thinking of Violetta’s needs and desires before his own (and discovering he likes that).
Apart from the storyline with the lovers, there is a big battle-for-the-world-as-we-know-it theme spinning out in the background. To be honest, this is where Peterson’s storytelling really seems to drop the ball. I never questioned that Violetta’s father is a manipulative, autocratic ruler with a powerful streak of megalomania. But it feels so far removed from the first half of the story. There just didn’t seem to be any explanation for how terrible Casilio was until pretty late in the book (CW: off-page rape, physical abuse). Plus, there is a huge amount of history between Violetta and Tibario’s parents, and it has such a big impact on the story, I just cannot fathom why all that detail was crammed into the scant few scenes where Violetta’s father or mother were present. At least Tibario’s mother appears in multiple scenes, so there was on-page action to flesh out her role in and importance to the story and her connections to the MCs. Violetta’s mother only appears at the very end and it was never really made clear where she’d been other than it had something to do with Casilio? The most befuddling patchwork backstory, though, was Violetta being the so-called Honored Child. This apparently means she had the magical ability to shield anyone and everyone from physical harm using the calyx charm. This ability is what saved her home from invasion, but just sort of…left her for her father…and came back in time for the book’s climax? The book’s namesake is sort of shot out there willy nilly, a magical version of a deus ex machina.
Overall, I think this book suffers a bit of a “can’t see the forest for the trees” in terms of story crafting. At the character level, I felt more engaged and invested. I loved that Violetta and Tibario have a messy relationship and even when they finally figure things out, the prophecy Violetta makes seems to bring out all of Tibario’s mama’s boy feelings, which reintroduces some complexity to their relationship. I loved Tibario’s mother being this erratic, self-centered, and extremely magical being—but one who clearly took action based on what she thought was right. And Casilio, for all that he was off-page most of the time and disgustingly cordial while on page, was very easy to hate. But the grand machinations of Casilio being a leader as cruel as he was vicious fell very flat to me, and the allusions to Tibario’s and Violetta’s mothers having a history of their own felt like an extra layer of emotional drama that only distracted from the true MCs emotional turmoil.