Readers who loved Adalyn Grace’s debut All the Stars and Teeth duology—a dangerous high seas adventure about princesses, pirates, mermaids, and more—may find themselves a bit surprised by her sophomore series, which represents quite a significant shift in tone. Belladonna is a darker, Gothic tale, full of death, murder, and forbidden love, featuring a heroine struggling to accept herself in the face of the ideals society’s told her she should want to become.
But for Grace herself, Belladonna is a lot more personal. Written during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the story not only incorporates many of the author’s own personal interests but served as an escape of sorts, allowing her to find an artistic and emotional outlet during a dark and frightening time.
“It took me a while to kind of figure out what I wanted to do and lean into the things I wanted to write about,” she says. “I feel like especially if you’re a newer author, all these voices start to get into your head, like ‘You shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that.’ But I gave myself permission to stop trying to write what I thought other people wanted to read and just do exactly what I wanted. I thought ‘we’re in a pandemic now. I can’t leave my house. Let me just do something fun.”
The end result turned out to be a compelling brew of tropes and themes that feels refreshingly original.
“Belladonna, it’s the accumulation of all the things I love,” Grace explains. “I leaned into Death as a romantic interest, I leaned into the Victorian era, which is an area that I always really loved in movies and TV shows, and stuff like masquerade balls. I pretty much just wrote the story to have fun for myself,”
And the author hopes the novel can serve a similar purpose for readers.
“There are messages in the book, obviously, but I kind of feel like at this point, I would just like people to be able to shut off their brains and have fun,” Grace said. “I wrote this book in a bubble, and it was very much like an escapist world for me to go play in, to explore the things I love. I’m hopeful that it can be that for other people as well because the world is just scary right now. There’s a lot going on! So if anybody takes a message away from my book, cool-that’s an added bonus—but, really I just wanted to give people something to have fun with and turn off their brains for a while.”
According to Grace, the initial idea for Belladonna was born a decade ago during her time working in live theater as part of the technical crew on a musical production of The Secret Garden in Arizona. And thanks to the often “monotonous” repetition of “watching the same show” for two months straight, she had a lot of time to think about what its story meant.
“My thing with the show is I could never tell if it was supposed to be nice and lighthearted or if they were trying to be spooky,” Grace laughs. “My brain would just kind of start to wander and be like, ‘Okay, what if they leaned more into the ghosts here, or tried to go darker here, or what happens if she actually could see the ghost that’s wandering the hall singing songs?”
Sadly, Belladonna does not contain any ghostly musical numbers, but it does feature a similar Gothic feel and plenty of the spooky vibes the stage show may have been lacking. The novel follows the story of Signa Farrow, an orphaned young woman who has spent much of her life haunted by death—both literally and figuratively speaking. Signa not only cannot die, but she is also able to see residents of the spirit world, from ghosts and unhappy spirits to Death himself.
The book is one part Gothic fantasy, one part swoony romance, and one part murder mystery, as Signa—with a little help from the aforementioned Death and a mysterious stable boy named Silas who works for the Hawthorne family—attempts to discover the identity of the person who’s poisoning her last remaining relatives. Full of lush visuals, a creepy atmosphere, and a half dozen characters who make natural suspects in the larger murder mystery that unfolds within the story, the book is moody, romantic, and surprisingly, just plain fun.
The murder plot is a first for Grace and one of the best aspects of Belladonna’s story. While many readers will likely initially be drawn to the book for its fierce heroine and dark romance, the specifics of its larger mystery surrounding a serial poisoner are well put together, with plenty of twists and red herrings.
“The Victorians have such a morbid fascination with death,” Grace says. “Whenever I think of the Victorian era, I just associate it so heavily with death and poison, because those were huge parts of the time period. So it’s like…why not just kill everybody? Why not just lean into the murder?”
Grace’s first two books—All the Stars and Teeth and its sequel All the Tides of Fate—were generally lighter fare, with more overtly fantastical settings and themes. Readers looking for more of the same will likely be surprised by this story’s more macabre feel, but according to the author, this story has a lot of connections to her own life
“I wasn’t necessarily trying to step away from Stars and Teeth, [as a writer], but the way I kind of explain these books is Stars and Teeth to me feels like going off on this big adventure, where Belladonna kind of feels like cozying up on a couch with a cup of tea, and it feels like it’s home to me a lot more,” she says. “It’s very much the things I loved growing up. I was the weird kid listening to Sweeney Todd on the beach, and on family vacations, and I loved all the gothic and the creepy. I don’t do horror very well. I’m a total baby, but I really like things that are a little bit eerie and paranormal.”
Though Belladonna story is quite a bit darker than the series that preceded it, for Grace, Belladonna is a natural next step for her as an author and a chance to explore a different kind of story.
“There are some [authors] who do a very good job [following a formula], like the reader knows exactly what they’re getting into and they go to that because it’s their candy. I don’t think I’m that kind of author,” she says. “I have a lot of very different story ideas and some of them are kind of all over the place. I just want to write what I love and hopefully, there are enough similarities in the style of my writing that readers can connect to and be like, ‘oh, okay this is an Adalyn Grace book, and I’ll enjoy it because it’s an Adalyn Grace book, even though it may be very different.”
Interestingly enough, however, the two series do touch on similar ideas when it comes to how women are treated within our larger society and feature similar feisty, quippy, and utterly capable heroines.
“I think there are some similar themes [between Belladonna and All the Stars and Teeth], about how women are seen in the world and how they interact with the world,” Grace says. “I think it’s going to feel pretty relevant to a lot of people. Because even though these are Victorian problems, they’re problems we still deal with today.”
Having spent much of her life being passed around from distant relative to distant relative, Signa has grown up isolated and ostracized, longing for nothing more than a normal place in society. She wants to participate in all the traditional things she’s missed out on up until this point: Balls, afternoon teas, pointless gossip sessions with other girls from good families, and other traditional forms of Victorian-era social rituals. But what she doesn’t realize is how stifling that world can be. But what she doesn’t realize is how stifling that world can be.
“Signa, she thinks that to fit into this world, she has to be a certain way, and she has to look a certain way and talk a certain way, eat or not eat certain things,” Grace explains. “There’s this little book that she has, and it’s called A Woman’s Guide to Etiquette and Beauty. Books like this actually existed during this time, that told you here are all the rules you should live by in order to be a proper lady.”
But as she begins to experience more of the world she spent so long dreaming of being a part of, Signa starts to question whether being a so-called proper young lady is worth sacrificing her own desires and independence.
“I love the Victorian era and I also thought it was a very good period to kind of examine [gender roles and expectations] because there are all these very structured societal rules. But it’s really funny that a lot of the things—and it’s not funny actually it’s really sad—we, unfortunately, still all deal with,” she says. “Maybe we’re not all toting around a book [like that] but a lot of the things that [Victorian] women and Signa, in particular, are dealing with are things that are still very prevalent right now and a lot of the same stigmas are the same.”
According to Grace, the biggest part of Signa’s journey is about understanding and accepting that she’s allowed to be herself, whether or not that person ticks all the boxes found in an etiquette book.
“I wanted Signa to explore and question who she’s expected to be and who she wants to be. To become the [person] that she actually feels most comfortable being and not have to put on this presentation for the rest of the world,” she explains. “That was probably the most important part of her arc for me.”
Much of Signa’s emotional journey is rooted in her shifting relationship with Death, who serves as a part-time mentor, a love interest, and, of course, an eternal reaper of souls, at various points throughout the story. And, who, naturally, has his own reasons for being interested in her strange abilities.
“I was kind of afraid, I think, to personify Death, even though I always wanted to, just because it’s a trope,” Grace says. “Everything is a trope, and personifying death is nothing new. But what can I bring that’s new to the table to this if I’m going to do this?”
The idea of falling in love with death has a long history in fiction, as do familiar tropes like Death and the Maiden, in which a young girl is deceived or tricked by the personification of a dark force. But in Belladonna, Death initially appears as more of a partner to Signa, helping her learn to control her abilities, encouraging her to think for herself, and consistently refusing to judge her for her choices. Yet, the girl is also “very, very drawn to Death” and to everything he represnts in terms of power and freedom.
“I think Death can be very good for her in a way. He encourages her to do exactly what she wants to do. He’s not necessarily pressuring her to, ‘Hey, come be a reaper and kill people with me.’ It’s more like, “Hey, why don’t you try out your powers? Why don’t you see how you feel about it?” She really comes to fall for them as much as I think she falls for him,” Grace says.” So is it the best decision [for her to be with him]? I don’t know. She’s just fallen in love with the Grim Reaper, so maybe, maybe not, but I do really think that they are good for each other in a personal sense.”
It’s not an accident that so much of Signa’s coming-of-age story is grounded in her growing attraction to Death and her growing understanding of sexual desire. (And there are definitely some steamy scenes in this novel if you’re curious.) But, for Grace, their relationship is really about allowing her heroine to discover the truest and best version of herself.
“She has these reaper powers where her touch can kill people, and she can communicate with Death and spirits,” Grace explains. “This has always made her an outcast in society, and she didn’t want that anymore, even though she starts to feel really comfortable in that world and she’s doing something good, and that is where she feels most relaxed and most herself, as opposed to in high society where she has to put on this performance that’s really exhausting.”
Signa’s struggle to come to terms with her powers is made more difficult because she is “very drawn to the darkness inside her,” despite her misgivings about where it might come from or the things she can do with it.
“That was something I definitely wanted to explore, because I feel like in a lot of stories, [heroines] push the darkness away,” Grace explains. I didn’t want Signa to shun away from that; I wanted her to embrace that she has these abilities and embrace that power, and what it means [to her]. This book is a kind of a descent into darkness in a way because maybe she’s not making the best choices as a human that we would make for ourselves in that situation But she feels very comfortable in that world of shadows.”
For fans who already can’t get enough of Signa’s story, the good news is that Grace is already working on a sequel, titled Foxglove, which she promises will be “as much of a murder mystery as Belladonna is.”
“There’s a new character who is there for absolute shenanigans and to throw a wrench in all of the plans people have,” she teases. “You meet them at the end of Belladonna and they are really really fun to write. I’m not sure if I can say this but I’m going to say it anyway. It is [writtten in] multiple points of view. It’s not only Signa’s story.”
Belladonna is available now and Foxglove is slated to arrive in 2023.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.