On both counts, I wasn’t disappointed. Yelena Black does an excellent job of drawing you into the world of the ballet, with the action set in and around the New York Ballet Academy (NYBA) at Lincoln Center. She includes a lot of little details – sewing ribbons on shoes, the crunch of rosin underfoot, the daily strains of classes and rehearsal – but at the same time she doesn’t bombard you with too many technical terms, so the balance feels right. And the story certainly had mystery and drama in bucketloads.
Vanessa Adler has gained herself a place at the ‘world’s most elite’ ballet school, but she hasn’t come there to dance – she came to find her sister Margaret, who also attended the school and mysteriously disappeared. But when she’s cast in the lead role of The Firebird, a notoriously difficult dance, she realises she has a rare talent that she is compelled to pursue – and her development as a dancer and her quest to solve the mystery of her sister become inextricably entwined. Vanessa is a likeable character in that she is beautiful and talented without really being aware of it, strong-willed and intelligent, and seems, at first at least, to value her friends and to focus on finding her sister above her own achievements. (As an aside, what is it with redheaded lead characters at the moment?! Defiance, Pantomime, Neptune’s Tears…)
There are some pretty creepy things going on behind the scenes at NYBA and the whole atmosphere is broody and intense. It did remind me of Black Swan in the sense that there are half-glimpses of sinister undercurrents in a seemingly innocent setting that lead to the growing paranoia of the protagonist, though in this case the source of unease is supernatural rather than psychological in nature. I would even go so far as to say that it verges on the melodramatic at times.
As a counterbalance to all this are Vanessa’s instant best friends – TJ, Blaine, Steffie and Elly – who provide the light relief and a sense of normality with their witty banter. There’s also a little love triangle going on at the centre of this book, between Vanessa and Zep (tall, dark, handsome, lead dancer with body and moves to die for – the moody, mysterious type), and Justin (blonde, muscly, handsome, irritatingly eager to keep Vanessa out of trouble). Be warned – there are some pretty steamy dance scenes between Vanessa and her leading men! I must admit that the romantic moments between Vanessa and Zep provided some cheesy lines that had me cringing, though as the characters develop and their motivations become clearer I felt able to forgive these. I will just say that there’s a certain amount of cheesiness and melodrama that, in the spirit of the theatrical setting, you just have to embrace and if you do you will enjoy the ride. The mystery continues to unfold right until the end and not all questions are answered, so I guess we can expect an encore from Vanessa and friends. I’m intrigued to find out what happens in the second act.