Juliet Immortal was one of my most anticipated books of 2011. I loved Stacey Jay’s Dead on the Delta, and when I learned that she was writing a Shakespeare spin-off involving an original type of paranormal being, it seemed like too much awesomeness in one package. I really wanted to like Juliet Immortal, and it makes me sad that I did not.
Here’s the premise: Romeo and Juliet fell in love in medieval Italy, but their story ended rather differently than the version we all know. Romeo sacrificed Juliet to gain eternal life in a supernatural faction called the Mercenaries. When Juliet died, her soul was claimed by the Mercenaries’ rivals, the Ambassadors. The Ambassadors’ goal is to make sure soul-mate couples get together and commit to each other. The Mercenaries’ goal is to destroy these couples by getting one of the lovers to sacrifice the other, as Romeo did to Juliet. Ambassadors possess the bodies of living people while carrying out their missions. Mercenaries can only possess the bodies of the dead.
As Juliet Immortal begins, Juliet is sent into the body of Ariel Dragland, an insecure teenage girl who is beautiful but can’t see it because of a burn scar on her face. Juliet, while in Ariel’s body, begins to fall in love again for the first time in 700 years, with a classmate named Ben. Trouble is, Ben is one of the soul mates she’s supposed to be helping, and his counterpart is Ariel’s best friend Gemma. Yet Ben and Gemma barely seem to like each other, and between that and Juliet’s growing feelings, she has a difficult task ahead of her. Meanwhile, Romeo is being creepy as usual, but has some troubling information to impart about the Ambassadors and the Mercenaries.
There are scenes in Juliet Immortal that are absolute gems. Juliet’s heart-to-heart conversation with Ariel’s mother is one of them, as is the scene in which Juliet forgives herself for the events of long ago. These scenes reminded me why I like Jay’s writing in the first place, and made me wish even more fervently that I could like the book.
Unfortunately, it bogs down in Juliet’s angst, which is fueled by her missing something that’s obvious to the reader long before Juliet figures it out. There’s a contrived reason that the biggest piece of evidence is not visible to her, but there are enough other clues that she should have at least considered the possibility that all was not as it seemed. I wanted to shout at her through the pages to stop brooding and think for a minute.
Then, in the later chapters, the metaphysics and the backstory become confusing. Bombshells are dropped regarding the common roots of the Ambassadors and Mercenaries, the real nature of Romeo’s character and of his dastardly deed, where Juliet’s mentor is hiding and what she’s really up to, and alternate universes. Yet none of this is explored or explained as much as it could have been.
The ending added to my frustration. [SPOILER: Highlight the following text if you want to read it] Tragedy strikes, but then both Juliet and Romeo are whisked away into hopeful alternate-universe endings. I felt that I was supposed to be happy for them, but instead I couldn’t escape the thought that in “real” reality, the reality in which most of the book was set, everyone’s lives had just been shattered. About half the main characters were dead and the other half devastated, and all to save a “soul mate” relationship that contains a troubling power imbalance. I think I’d have preferred either the sad ending alone, or a happy ending in the “main” reality. However, I did like Juliet’s alternate ending taken in isolation, and would have loved to read a straight 14th-century retelling that ended like that. [END SPOILER]
Stacey Jay is a good writer and I’m not giving up on her. I’ll definitely keep following her Annabelle Lee books. Juliet Immortal, though, left me more frustrated than satisfied, and I can’t really recommend it despite its originality and some terrific scenes.