Banter in ‘Rivals’ Brings Sparks and Magic

The back-cover copy of a book is supposed to give a reader an idea of what’s in store. To set a few expectations early on. To whet the appetite. In the case of Rebecca Ross’s latest novel, Divine Rivals, the blurb on the cover does nothing to set expectations.

If anything, it obscures just how enchanting the journey ahead will be.

In a magical land giving off serious Edwardian England vibes, teenage Iris Winnow has a way with words. The plan is to graduate high school and then go to college, despite the war between gods brewing to the east, but when her brother goes missing on the front and her alcoholic mother goes into a tailspin, Iris has to drop out to provide for what little family she has left. She lands a job at the Oath Gazette, where she types out announcements and obituaries—and jockeys for the coveted columnist position. Also being considered for the job is the infuriating Roman Kitt, whose privilege has given him advantages Iris can’t even imagine.

As the two spar verbally and through their work, Iris writes letters to her brother and slides them into her wardrobe as a way of pretending he’s not missing. To her surprise, she gets a reply—through the wardrobe, and not from her brother. The mysterious letter-writer listens to her sorrows and comforts her, giving her more confidence than she’s had since her brother disappeared. But the war is getting closer and Iris has questions she can’t find the answers to at home. When things take a turn for the worse, she packs up her typewriter and heads to the front herself, leaving her home and the letters behind.

The cover of Divine Rivals, featuring blue-petaled flowers growing amidst old-fashioned typewriter keys of the letters D and R in a stylistic spelling of the title.

Of course, leaving those things behind doesn’t mean she leaves behind the possibility of love. That’s actually included in the back-cover copy, and it’s one point that Divine Rivals delivers on in spades. The tension between Iris and Roman at work is thick enough to cut with a knife, but the barbs they fling back and forth are probably sharp enough to do the job, too. Meanwhile, the vulnerability Iris feels with her magical penpal is a heartening change of pace, and lets us see enough facets of her character to really fall in love with her, and her blooming love story.

I have not always been kind about romance subplots in books, especially in YA fantasy, but Ross makes it work. The fact that she treads so heavily on ground already plowed by classics like You’ve Got Mail (and, before that in In the Good Old Summertime, and before that in The Shop Around the Corner) doesn’t diminish how effective it is to watch the ice between Iris and Roman melt away. They are equals, butting heads. They are rivals, not yet at the top of their game, but getting there, even if they have to step on each other along the way. And those sparks make their eventual romance feel sweet and real and exciting. Enemies to lovers is a popular trope for a reason, and Ross does it well here. I found myself rooting for them just as much as I ever rooted for Kathleen and Joe.

You can send me a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils any day of the year, Joe Fox.

Setting is hardly even hinted at in the aforementioned back-cover copy, which is tragic because the world they inhabit is a fascinating one. Ross takes a backdrop of magic and gods and legends and gives it a(n early) twentieth-century update, without giving into the temptation to make it steampunk. Wrathful, recently awakened gods are just as ordinary here as getting a sandwich, and the ravages of war are heightened by both advancing technology and mythical creatures. And happily, gender equality and modern acceptance of many sexualities are present here, giving readers nostalgia without the pesky bigotry of the past. (I don’t remember a mention of racial equality in the Oath, but we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.)

Divine Rivals was a fun and engaging story about war and family, with a hefty dose of romance running beneath it all. One thing to note, however, is that Divine Rivals is the first book in its series. If you’re looking for a happy ending, stop reading early. But if you want to whet your appetite for the sequel, carry on to the bitter end, and pray to every god in the Oath that Ross is typing faster than even Iris or Roman ever could.

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