Julia Ember’s Ruinsong is a dark, queer fantasy you won’t be able to be put down

Ruinsong by Julia Ember / Credit: Macmillan Children's Publishing Group
Ruinsong by Julia Ember / Credit: Macmillan Children's Publishing Group /

Julia Ember’s Ruinsong is a compellingly fast-paced fantasy that mixes dark themes, magical music, and an LGBT enemies-to-lovers romance.

In the world of YA fantasy, it’s hard to stand out. There are evil queens, lost princesses, repressive governments, and complex magical systems everywhere, and many of these stories often hit familiar beats. On paper, Julia Ember’s Ruinsong is one in a long line of stories about oppressed girls with magical abilities who must learn how to fight back  In actuality, it turns out to be something much more – a compelling, fast-past read with remarkably dark themes and an inclusive love story.

The story is a vague retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, set in the kingdom of Bordea where there are three classes of people: Nobles, commoners, and mages, gifted individuals who command magic through the power of song. Cadence is a powerful young corporeal singer, which means she can affect living things and organic matter with her voice.

As the story opens, it’s her first year as the Queen’s Principal in the Performing, an annual event during which the cruel and sadistic Queen Elene forces her singers to torture the kingdom’s nobles, so that they might remember their place in her lands.

Cadence reluctantly complies with Elene’s torture directive — though she sings a second song that heals the injured attendees afterward — out of fear that if she doesn’t, her vocal cords will be cut and she’ll be exiled to a camp outside the city, where injured mages can no longer perform magic and poverty reigns.

Sixteen-year-old Remi de Bordealan attends the Performing for the first time in place of her chronically ill mother, only to see her former childhood friend Cadence step out onto the stage to sing. She can’t believe how horrifying the entire process is, and is shocked that her onetime companion would have any part of it.

But when Elene discovers the connection between the girls, she forces Remi to serve as a companion to Cadence, threatening her father and her own life in the process. Remi, furious at leaving under Elene’s cruel regime, attempts to convince Cadence that she is powerful enough to stand up to the evil queen and help forge a new future for their kingdom.

To be fair, many of the elements of Ruinsong will seem familiar to fans of YA fantasy at first glance, but Ember’s novel somehow manages to make the story feel propulsive and fresh. The music-based magical system is innovative and unique and the story itself is laced with enough anguish and dread that its stakes feel legitimate and real.

(Though the novel doesn’t go into great detail about the different types of magic users beyond those like Elene and Cadence, and honestly, I’d have loved to learn more about the stranger classes of mage – like those who can command and manipulate plants.)

Even the evil Queen Elene is presented as a genuine threat, rather than merely rumored to be so, and the tortures she inflicts on others are truly horrifying on multiple levels. It’s easy to see why Remi and the other nobles are desperate to overthrow her, even as Cadence fears the immense power she clearly wields.

The relationship between Remi and Cadence is also a highlight of the novel, building slowly from long-ago friends to something more like enemies to reluctant allies to maybe something more. Their attraction is a slow build that happens around the rest of the story and their relationship feels both organic and earned. Neither is asked to ignore the flaws of the other, and both are made better people by being around one another. As a pairing, they’re easy to root for, but their relationship doesn’t overpower the rest of the story, either.

And that story is largely Cadence’s, who must learn to trust her own instincts and to stand up for what is right. (Her fear is easily understood, however, as is her anxiety about being left impoverished as she once was as a child.) But as Elena’s behavior becomes more erratic and dangerous, her path becomes clearer. If only she can find the strength to follow it.

Rich worldbuilding, a dark threat that genuinely feels threatening, and a pair of heroines who are far from perfect, but perfect together all combine to make Ruinsong a surprisingly intriguing read, and one that fans looking for solid LGBT representation in YA fantasy should make sure to check out.

Next. These Violent Delights is a gorgeously creative Romeo and Juliet retelling. dark

Ruinsong is available now. Let us know if you plan to add it to your TBR pile this Fall!