The Beholder by Anna Bright: Great Story, Nonsensical Worldbuilding

I knew two things going into this:

That it was inspired by the Odyssey, and that it was about a girl who crossed an ocean.

I knew a little more, obviously, but those were the main defining features of The Beholder to me, pre-reading. After-reading, however, I feel like I’m being pulled apart in two directions.

Because on one hand, I give 5 out of 5 stars to the story. The characters and the plot and the romance(s). All so amazing, and I was completely invested in each moment.

But I also give 1 out of 5 stars to the worldbuilding. I could not stand the worldbuilding in this, nor did I manage to make much sense out of it. If the worldbuilding was done differently, I’m sure The Beholder could have been a 5 star read for me.

So yeah. Very conflicted. I feel like the negatives have to precede the positives in this case, so let’s just jump right in.

Wow. The worldbuilding was uhhh . . . hmm.

I was not only confused, but what I did garner from the worldbuilding was so nonsensical that I felt like I started all over again. Let me lay it out for you, and maybe it’s making sense for everyone else except me?

Selah lives in the Potomac. If you’re familiar with American history, the Potomac was one of the place British settlers came to. It’s like, near Maryland. Very ~historical~. And in The Beholder’s timeline, it was abandoned by Britain (fair, bc a lot of the American colonies did not do well).

So I placed the Potomac ruling area to be vaguely inspired by colonial times. But Selah is the seneschal-elect, and her father is the seneschal. And seneschals are typically figures in . . . medieval history?

But I can overlook that. Maybe it’s like medieval x colonial mashup, right?

England ends up vaguely medieval x colonial (they have tournament-esque events like in medieval times, but still have some colonial elements). The Norwegian-ish country seems pretty consistent and is placed somewhere in history.

And then . . . there’s this Imperiya Yotne—which is this Imperial Russian sort of country. And it’s Big and Bad and it’s taking over Eastern Europe. (Sound familiar?) It’s scary and bad and Selah does not want to go there under any circumstances, because of tales of Baba Yaga and other dangerous things.

The Imperiya Yotne reminds me of World War-era Russia. With its movement into Eastern Europe (or whatever the Eastern Europe area in The Beholder is called), and how the Potomac (and their ex-allies England) are scared of them.

Oh, also? Despite not having a lot of basic amenities (say, factories), there’s also a radio. (And coded messages sent in some channels—remember the World Wars?)

Radios are apparently super rare and they usually come from/are found in Zhōng Guó. Which is the vaguely East Asian country that Selah never reaches. (The ~technologically advanced special East Asians~, eh.)

As for the rest of the world (mainly the non-white world), there’s a guy named Vishnu on board the ship (I assume he’s South Asian), two East Asian guys on the ship (see Zhōng Guó above), AND the first love interest is black, and he lives in the Potomac. (The only black character, I think.)

ALSO there’s a guy named Homer on the ship who is obviously Ancient Greek (he tells the tale of Odysseus’ wife and the shawl—says he was part of Odysseus’ crew).

That’s . . . a lot to take in. It’s like Bright took snippets of history ranging from Ancient Greek to World War II and then mashed them together. To create this world.

And I’m just very confused.

The world, as far as I know, completely ignores Africa, save for the first love interest who is black. I guess in this mashup history, slavery isn’t a thing? Colonialism in Africa isn’t a thing? Does Africa even exist?

The Imperiya Yotne is definitely fighting a border with Asian countries, but the Middle East and Africa (also a lot of South Asia—unless it’s clumped under Zhōng Guó?) are just . . . nonexistent? I guess no one wants to marry to forge alliances with their kingdom, or share resources or anything? Maybe they’re part of the Imperiya Yotne, but I doubt it?

I could ramble on about theories, but frankly, you get the point. I’m just really really really confused about The Beholder’s worldbuilding, and it feels like it’s missing quite a few uh crucial points and explanations.

Maybe I missed something. Maybe I’m not supposed to focus this much on it. But it just doesn’t make sense and I despised this element of the story. I get that it’s supposed to be full of myths and folklore, but the sheer massiveness and randomness of the world elements has me really confused.

But, if the worldbuilding was different, this could have been a 5 star read for me.

Seriously, I loved the story. So much.

Although Selah came off as “white fragility” a bit (ehm with her whole crew partially consisting of POC to serve her and her marriage journey), I was super invested in her story.

Bright just has this magical ability to make me fall in love with every love interest she sets our way. We get to see three (okay, maybe the first is a half, so two and a half) in this story, and each time I got to know a new love interest, I thought “This one is it. This is the one.”

But honestly? I can’t be sure. I love them all and it’s truly rare where I find a book where I just can’t decide who to ship because they’re all great choices. (I also think that there are more choices and love interests to come in the sequel . . .)

So Bright did amazing with the relationships and dynamics, and that’s a large part of what pulled me into this book.

I do admit that I guessed the majority of the plot in the first 150 pages. Like . . . all of it. But I didn’t mind at all, and that’s the key point here. I loved being in the moment, despite any plot predictabilities, and reading what Selah was doing. I knew what was coming, but I was still hanging onto every word, waiting for the reveal.

It was just such a great journey. And I’m so bummed that the worldbuilding really messed it up.

I think if The Beholder was set in, say a fantasy world. No modern country names. With made up countries and magic (to act as the radio). I would have fallen in love with that story one hundred times over.

So yes. It’s a great story. I’m really excited to read what Bright writes in another series or book, because obviously she is a magician at writing a great plot and compelling characters. But that worldbuilding, oof.

Overall, I think the worldbuilding is what makes it or breaks it for you.

If you can handle the sheer nonsensical nature of the worldbuilding that I described to you, and you think it won’t bother you, then I say go for it. The Beholder is a great story.

But if those elements make you cringe a little, or you don’t think you could get past it, I definitely recommend you uh, maybe take a pass on this series and wait for another story Bright writes.

Seriously, this had so much potential, and I never knew worldbuilding could kill a book this badly.

2 stars

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Selah is the seneschal-elect of the Potomac, but when her proposal is turned down, she is forced to abandon the people she is supposed to rule and go abroad across the ocean to find a fiancé, or she is never to return.

The sheer whirlwind nature of being launched on this journey seems like the doings of Selah’s evil stepmother, but she can’t be sure. All Selah wants is to return home to the Potomac, to take care of her slowly deteriorating father.

But that’s hard as Selah must meet not just one suitor, but multiple. And as she learns more about her suitors, darker motivations rise to the surface—both from Selah’s stepmother, and other forces.

add to goodreads here

Thank you so much to Harper Collins for providing me with a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review!

Tell me what you think about the worldbuilding! Was I being too hard on this book?

14 thoughts on “The Beholder by Anna Bright: Great Story, Nonsensical Worldbuilding

  1. So disappointed to hear how confusing the worldbuilding was. I don’t know if I would be able to follow it from your summary. There seems to be a combination mix of historical backdrops, but without any purpose to highlight a theme or concept. I think that may be why the worldbuilding failed. Sorry this one disappointed you. Hopefully the next one is a full-5-star.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, like it’s not super important, but it’s a lot of snippets left around and it just doesn’t make sense to me. I hope the next one is amazing too!

      Like

  2. the cover is beautiful, but I can’t get behind a book where the journey is all about the character choosing between love interests. :/ and lmao, that worldbuilding sounds like the writer took notes from Xena & Hercules in terms of history mash-ups with no regard for dates and facts!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful review, Vicky! I’ve been really curious and eager to read this one, as it seemed kind of amazing, I’m so sorry the world-building is so messy ugh :/ I think I’ll lower my expectations for this one a little bit ahah 🙂 thank you for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course Marie! I’m honestly so surprised I could remember so many details, but I was really worked up about that element lmao

      yeah, best to come in with slightly lower expectations–if you do read, I hope you fare better than I did!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. LITERALLY

      it gets me because apparently most of the radios are from ~the asia country~ and so they’re just like extremely technologically advanced I guess??? but like yay for the Asians but it makes me uncomfortable because it feels *too* close to the ~magical Asians~ trope and I just ooooof

      it doesn’t make sense!!!! why!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But even if the ‘magical asians’ did invent radios, did they sneak all across the rest of the world and put up radio towers? Also, electricity? And if so, wouldn’t that be kind of noticeable?! I feel like the author doesn’t understand how radio signals work….

        Liked by 1 person

      2. YEAH I KNOW it’s so weird

        there were radio towers in the story, and apparently they’re just conveniently located where the characters need to be, despite the ~magical Asians~ being the one with the technology

        I am A Bit Confused(TM) ahahahah

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I KNOW. I mean a lot of the worldbuilding *is* pretty subtle but there’s a lot of name dropping occasionally and I just don’t know where it was going. I’m a pretty attentive reader worldbuilding-wise, ESPECIALLY when it’s with things I know well, so i’m just ???? I don’t know and I’m too nervous to ask Anna ahahah

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  4. I think you’re being over dramatic about the wordbuilding. I read it as a dystopian future since the author never mentions a time period. It actually went along with the themes of the stepmother making alliances with these broken nations. It talks about the fall of England and how Perrault came from New York, as if it had a long prior history. I don’t think you had an open enough mind. It was brilliantly written to me, and I think this will be answered in the second novel.

    Like

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I guess the New York, Potomac, and England relations felt too close to colonial history for me, as if Britain abandoned settlements in the States because of the pressure from the Imperiya, so it led to this alt history where the states had their own nations, which was confusing for me. I personally don’t feel like dystopian or futuristic is necessarily correct, because I guess I’m not sure how technology would regress with that.

      I did think the writing was good, and I loved the story, but I’m just still very confused about the worlds (especially the radios?). I think this is a situation where reader imagination plays a big part of whether or not the world will feel cohesive

      Liked by 1 person

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