Book Review: Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Lovina J. Paje
May 8, 2023

Genre: Horror fiction, fantasy fiction 

Content warnings: blood, hallucinations, mental ill-health and mental health, ableism

Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: three different haunted houses, one of which is inhabited by bullies and loneliness, the other two of which are inhabited by the ghouls of your late family.

I’d originally purchased Gallant because I’ve been a long-time fan of V.E. Schwab’s work and I was hoping, after the debacle that was The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, this book could revive my faith in her work. I must admit, Schwab has always had a knack for creating fascinating worlds with interesting characters. It is one of the reasons why I continue to read her work.

However, Gallant was underwhelming, to say the least.

Sixteen-year-old Olivia Prior is missing three things: a mother, a father, and a voice. Her only companions are the ghouls she sees and her mother’s journal which captured a mind in turmoil.
Until she receives a letter from an uncle she’s never met, summoning her to his estate – Gallant. But when she arrives, she discovers her uncle is dead and the estate is empty, save for her cousin Matthew and the servants.
Gallant is a house of secrets. A house sitting in lonely vigil. A place where the ghouls are powerful. As Olivia searches for answers about her family, her past, she discovers a dark reflection of everything she knew, an ancient realm where ghosts take form, and the dark master sits waiting for her… 

Messy plot and flowery descriptions

My biggest gripe is the writing style, which made it arduous to get through. Consequently, my dislike for it impacted my reading for it and I desperately hoped it would change as the story progressed. I wanted to see it through but alas, I was disproved. 

She reads the letter again, soaking in the ink, scouring the words and the space between for answers and finding none. Something wafts off the paper, like a draft. She brings the letter to her nose. It is summer, and yet, the parchment smells of autumn, brittle and dry, that narrow season when nature withers and dies, when the windows are shuttered and the furnaces belch smoke and waits like a promise, just out of sight. 

Above is one example of the kind of writing we see in Gallant. While it contains beautiful imagery, and gives a sense of wonder, or perhaps, longing, it feels far too long-winded to describe the action of reading the letter. It doesn’t give us any substance about the plot, or the importance of this letter. Schwab’s writing almost feels better suited to poetry rather than sci-fi or horror.

This is repeated throughout the novel. Schwab spends too much time on metaphors about how our protagonist, Olivia Prior, opens the door, or how she tries on her mother’s clothes, or the way she traverses through the hallway. The same is said for other characters. We get such lengthy descriptions about the way Matthew looks, or the relationship between Hannah and Edgar, and the matrons at Merilance School for Girls that we do not get enough worldbuilding. 

The only thing that helped me (at least, what the house of Gallant looked like) imagine what this world would look like is the front cover. It reminded me of her debut novel, The Near Witch, which made me think Gallant would have similar haunting and dark aspects to the writing. The pages are loaded with flowery descriptions and overused metaphors that I can barely imagine where I am in the story. I was tired of reading about the way Olivia woke up, how she had her meals and there wasn’t nearly enough emphasis on the actual plot. By the end of the book, I barely had enough information to piece together what even happened, that all of it had felt like a blur. 

Gallant is a different place in the daylight. 
The shutters are open, the windows flung wide, the shadows retreating as daylight spills in and a cool breeze drives the stale air from the massive house. But the sun has lifted a veil, and she can see that the house is not quite so grand as she first thought. Gallant is an old estate, fighting the fall into disrepair, an elegant figure beginning to droop. Skin sagging a little over bones.

Alongside this messy plot, there were a lot of underdeveloped or unresolved plotlines. For example, we are told that Olivia goes to Merilance School for Girls and she is an orphan. However, we aren’t quite sure why she’s an orphan until we get to the very end of the book. Sadly, the climax of the story, i.e. the final act, is one of the only fruitful parts of this narrative. That is where things start to take place and some of the characters finally get their development. Even then, it felt like there was so much poured into this story for nothing because I could barely follow what was happening. 

Neglected characters

I don’t think there needs to be any reasons to justify a character with a disability. I’d argue that they should exist in fiction the same way people in the real world who have disabilities do. However, Olivia being mute is an integral part of her identity and I wanted to see it further explored. At Merilance, she is taunted by the other school girls for not being able to speak (or laugh, or cry out in pain, for that matter). This makes Olivia lash out because she cannot express herself the way she wants or needs to. The matrons ignore her and chalk it up to her being problematic. Meanwhile, Olivia is misunderstood. She is a young girl yearning for a deeper connection but her muteness only ostracises her. 

When Olivia moves to Gallant and meets Hannah, Edgar and Matthew, she does try signing to them. They do listen to her, yes, but it wasn’t even that these characters didn’t want to accommodate her. They did accommodate her. Hannah and Edgar and Matthew all understand sign language. They’d paid attention to and listened to Olivia when it suited them. And that is what bothers me. Olivia’s muteness felt like a plot device that made it convenient for every character to simply ignore Olivia because she was mute. They simply did not want to talk to her and it felt like a waste. If Olivia can’t talk, then other characters quite literally cannot hear her. If Olivia wants to sign, or write so she can communicate with everyone, the only thing Hannah, Edgar or Matthew needed to do was look away or ignore her if they didn’t want to talk to her. 

Book cover of 'Gallant' by V.E. Schwab on the grass.

Additionally, there was an overarching theme of Olivia wanting to belong. Or, to be more specific, to be wanted and to be loved. At Merilance, she knows she doesn’t belong. There, she is the orphan, no one left to love her. She doesn’t know who she is or where she comes from. However, at Gallant, Olivia can belong. She discovers that there is a long line of Priors who have lived in Gallant. When she first meets Matthew, she is elated. She has a cousin, someone else she can identify with. Despite this, Matthew shuns her again and again, denying her bids for connection. It makes Olivia feel more faraway in a place she was meant to belong.

However, I did like Olivia’s connections to the ghouls. It was one of the better things about this book. We know that Olivia can see ghouls but she chooses not to speak to them. However, it isn’t until she is almost captured by the Master of the House that we discover that Olivia can talk and communicate with them. She can control them too, which I think is pretty neat. She uses that power to escape from the Master of the House and eventually, to defeat him. 

Despite this, Schwab barely gives Olivia’s powers the attention it deserves. Olivia can talk to ghouls and yet again, it’s only used as a device to move the plot along, rather than give Olivia any development. She stops using it by the end of the book. 

I was beginning to question why Olivia hadn’t just befriended the ghouls; it seemed fitting. She is this young, lonely girl at Merilance. I thought it would’ve made sense for her to befriend them. It seems like the natural progression of the narrative. Plus, only Olivia can see these ghouls. If she was caught talking to one of them, the matrons at Merilance would see that she’s talking to nothing and it could’ve expanded onto more reasons why she was bullied at Merilance. Not only is Olivia mute, but she is seeing things no one else sees. Then, when she arrives at Gallant and discovers these ghouls are actually deceased Priors, it could’ve helped her feel more connected to the past she never knew about. It would’ve been a stronger way to tie these threads together. Unfortunately, even this idea seemed to fall through. 

And then, she packs. 
Not because Matthew told her to, but because she longs to find a place where she is wanted. And she is not wanted here. She stares down at the pile of pale fabric in her suitcase, then flings open the wardrobe and pulls out her mother’s clothes. 

There was also an unfinished plotline about Matthew not being able to read. This is a realisation that Olivia makes, and I remember being pleasantly surprised. Perhaps this was why Matthew was ignoring Olivia when she tried writing to him – for whatever reason, Matthew was illiterate. However, it wasn’t explained. It was included and I would’ve liked for this character limitation to be explored a bit more, the same way I would’ve liked for Olivia’s disability to be explored a bit more.

It seems to me that Gallant was meant to be a haunting story about a mother and a father who wanted to make a child out of love amid their dark history. It also felt like a story about a daughter who longed for a love that she wanted to experience, a love she wanted to give. These sentiments are clear enough in Olivia Prior, with her desire for companionship and to come home. Unfortunately, V.E. Schwab repeatedly introduces these wonderful concepts and executes them poorly. It’s for these reasons that I am disappointed and rate Gallant a 2/5 stars.

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