Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin StarlingYellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin StarlingHaving thoroughly enjoyed Caitlin Starling’s 2019 novel The Luminous Dead, I was very happy to learn that I wouldn’t have to wait long to read more of her work.

Yellow Jessamine (2020), Starling’s new novella, is completely different from The Luminous Dead but similarly features creepy atmosphere, a background of family trauma, and relationships filled with dysfunctional tension and longing.

Evelyn Perdanu is a wealthy woman in the city of Delphinium, a city that is slowly dying now that its surrounding empire has fallen to a coup. Evelyn is involved in shipping, and is also an herbalist specializing in “fixes to unfixable problems.” The story begins when one of her ships brings home a strange illness, and on the same night, she finds an equally mysterious man lying by the road near her house, injured and near death.

Caitlin Starling

Caitlin Starling

Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin StarlingI’m largely going to echo what Kelly said about Yellow Jessamine (2020). Our protagonist is extremely paranoid of everything and everyone around her (with one notable exception) and yet her actions didn’t feel reasonable to me. I think what Starling was trying to achieve with the main character was interesting, and there are some stand-out scenes and passages; but overall, I found the protagonist’s choices more bizarre than coming from a flawed-yet-logical place. 

I also found the supernatural aspect of the story muddy, which in turn made the climax less climactic. The novella does a lot of meticulous setting up in the first half, but I don’t think the payoff matched the setup. However, I do agree with Kelly that maybe it would have made more sense as a novel — all that atmosphere and setting with more space to breathe and explore the characters could have made this story more engaging, and the many threads coming together more of a payoff.

There is a certain beauty to the slow pace, but there wasn’t quite enough umph in the ratcheting tension to pull it off. I found the final handful of pages very interesting, though.

~ Skye Walker

Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin StarlingCaitlin Starling’s 2020 novella Yellow Jessamine is a success of interiority, as we follow the tightening noose of circumstances menacing Evelyn Perdanu, in a fantastical city in an alien world. Evelyn, who dresses in black and veils herself like a widow even though she never married, is a shipping magnate in the city of Delphinium, a city now surrounded by a military cordon during a civil war. Evelyn and her handful of colleagues are the few wealthy left. Now, Evelyn has become the target of a disease or a drug. If one of Evelyn’ ships brought the new contagion, the struggling city will turn on her. More frightening, the infected seek out Evelyn and act as if they know her personally. Retreating to her mansion and her greenhouse garden, Evelyn is forced to examine her life.

As the strange disease or drugging spreads, (with one simple, terrifying symptom visible) Starling gracefully excavates layer after layer of Evelyn’s guilt and shame, until the final germ of her behavior is revealed close to the end of the story.

Starling’s descriptions are exquisite. I’d call it “imagery,” but Starling touches each of the senses. The twin sources of Evelyn’s influence—her legitimate power as the head of a shipping company and her secret power based on the “cures” she has dispensed to the women of the city—converge in the story. Much of Evelyn’s garden contains healing plants, but it is a poison garden; Evelyn has healed many, but she is a poisoner.

I walked every step of the claustrophobic labyrinth of Evelyn’s psyche, eager to know exactly what lay around the next corner. The prose is dark, dreamlike and lush. Where the story broke down for me was the intersection of Evelyn’s internal life with the actual world. At the end of Yellow Jessamine, the city of Delphinium itself is at risk, forcing Evelyn to decide if she will take the necessary steps to atone. The choice she makes has an impact on the city as well. Since I never fully understood the political background or the risks, this secondary result never resonated for me. The city is blockaded in some way, but the harbor is left open; a rebel navy appears in the harbor at the end but I didn’t understand how liberating one city (if in fact they do liberate Delphinium) leads to the collapse of the Empire. This is far from the important part of the story, but because it blends with Evelyn’s psychic journey, I felt distracted and confused by these questions.

I still sank right into this book, absorbed into Evelyn’s bitterness, strategy, fear and longing for connection. I didn’t love the character, but exquisite language made this a dark, disturbing treat.

~Marion Deeds

Published in September 2020. In Yellow Jessamine, shipping magnate Evelyn Perdanu controls the dying city of Delphinium with trade deals and secrets. But when mysterious sickness sparks death and obsession, all leading back to her, Evelyn’s brittle existence is strained to breaking. She retreats to her estate, amidst paranoia and poisonous secrets, intent on rooting out this plague before it destroys everything she has built.


  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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  • Skye Walker

    SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @tskyewalker

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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