Yellow Jessamine: A paranoid antiheroine in a dissolving city

Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin StarlingYellow Jessamine by Caitlin StarlingYellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Having 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 will probably appeal to readers who also enjoyed books like Lane Robins’s Maledicte, with its decadent city setting and antiheroes. Starling sets the mood perfectly with the relentless rain that batters Delphinium, giving it the feel of a place that is dissolving literally as well as metaphorically.

Evelyn is kind of a terrible person — in the current climate, it’s especially hard to get behind a character who’s trying to downplay a deadly disease, not to mention some other awful things she does — but one has some sympathy for her as well. When we finally peel back the petals to find the tragedy at the heart of her life story, it’s devastating, and one of the most effective scenes in the book. It’s easy to understand what makes Evelyn as distrustful and paranoid as she is, but it can also be frustrating to read, especially when her ruthless actions undermine her own plans and goals.

Additionally, I felt that the story just needed a little more room to breathe. I kind of wanted it to be novel-length, so that there was more room to explore Evelyn, her relationship with Violetta, and the city and empire in which they live. Overall, I didn’t like it as much as I did The Luminous Dead, but it did satisfy the craving I sometimes get for gloomy cities and scheming poisoners.


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.

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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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