Title: Yesterday or Long Ago
Author: Jenni Sauer
Genre(s): fiction, fairytale retelling, rom-com, sci-fi
Length: 358 pages
Published: May 12, 2021
If it was unlikely for me to beta read for a NA Cinderella retelling, then it was even more unlikely for me to beta read for a rom-com retelling of Aladdin…and yet, that’s precisely what I did back in 2020. And then I finally bought a copy of the finished product and read it in the course of a few days. It’s good to keep yourself (and others) on their toes.
Yesterday or Long Ago is the second published novel from Sauer’s Evraft galaxy (though not the second book in the War on Taras trilogy), and is a decidedly fluffier tale than the first book I read from her, Rook Di Goo. It does, however, take place in the same universe and includes some familiar faces as well as some new ones—and for all the fluff, there’s substance and heart.
The story begins when Rinity, who’s been sneaking into the Royal Library for years even though she’s not allowed, meets a Librarian even more intriguing than the heroes from her favorite stories. Her best friend, Amya, decides to use her ingenuity and sewing skills to help Rinity pursue her chance at love. Things quickly get complicated, however—not just because the Librarian turns out to be the crown Prince, or because the Prince’s closest advisor seems to have taken a liking to Amya (and vice-versa), but because a stranger offers Rinity the opportunity to finally learn who her biological father is—a question that’s hung over Rinity for years…and also might be the key to her becoming a high-society woman worthy of being in the Library and being with the Prince. She only has to do one, small, easy thing…
The thing I love most about Sauer’s writing style is just how much personality is woven into every sentence—which is even more impressive considering that her books are written in 3rd person rather than 1st. As I said in my review of Rook Di Goo, you get the best of both tenses. Unlike RDG, however, Yesterday or Long Ago has duel POVs for its duel protagonists, Rinity and Amya. Their sections are distinct from each other while also maintaining an overall style and tone that helps the different perspectives feel connected rather than disjointed. Here’s an excerpt from Rinity’s POV (from page 2):
“Rinity looked up from the book in front of her, over the stacks of volumes she planned to read next—and maybe a few she planned to smuggle out—to see the Library Steward a few tables away. He checked the membership cards of those seated and then moved on to the next table to perform the same check.
They usually only checked at the door and left everyone inside free of such interruptions. Did they know she’d snuck in? But she’d done it for years and no one had ever been suspicious before.
She slipped from her seat and ducked down a row of bookshelves. Making a point to walk with purpose, she made her way down the rows, like she was going somewhere and not on the run from the Library Steward.
It shouldn’t have made a different, not really, whose blood poured through her veins. She had Will, after all, the man whose name she bore and who was more [a] father to her than she deserved. But she was Liosi and there was nothing more important than money or military valor. And if you didn’t have those things, you could only succeed by being connected to those who did.”
And here’s an excerpt from Amya’s POV (from page 23-24):
“Amya Cole shut the door to her family’s apartment with a heavy sigh, still able to hear the sounds of laughter, arguing, music, and life that came from the other side.
She pressed a finger to her throbbing temple as she ignored the twinge of guilt that fluttered within her for slipping away. But Norah and Alana were arguing about the best way to make bazzerals and Malaya and Dalen were supposed to be finishing their chores but were instead turning everything into a competition that always ended in a wrestling match of sorts. And in the midst of it were her parents, slow dancing to the decidedly not slow song that filtered through the radio.
Amya had attempted to focus on her mending but found it impossible. And all her siblings weren’t even home.”
Everything about YoLA is solid, but the characters are definitely the stars of the show—and how delightful the little cast is! As I mentioned in the last section, there are two main characters: best friends Rinity Garrick and Amya Cole.
Rinity is a certified bookworm (so much so that she’s willing to sneak into a library she’s forbidden to enter) with a gentle, genuine heart and a tendency to hold onto the world of fantasy instead of striking out boldly into the real world; she struggles with the conflicting fear of being not enough and too much at the same time, in part due to never knowing the identity of her biological father.
Across the hallway of their apartment complex lives Amya, an ambitious and shrewd seamstress from a loving but large and loud family. Despite her surety and confidence—and her very clear goal to marry a merchant’s son in order to move up a little in the world—she hides her own insecurities about not being good enough for others to truly love. These two are different in nearly every way, yet their friendship has persisted for years, allowing one to balance the other and vice-versa. And as much as their respective love stories take center stage in the book, their relationship is also one of the stars of the show (which I loved—despite misunderstandings and differences, the two young women stick with each other).
Speaking of love stories, those who have already RDG will recognize the other two main characters of this book: Prince Tov and Carrigan Gibbs. Here we get to see more of Tov’s motivation and inner struggles as he nears his official coronation; he’s still earnest, trusting, and almost overly-romantic (as evidenced by how much he and Rinity kiss), but there’s a brain behind his soft heart—a man who wants to do the right thing as an individual as well as a ruler—as well as fears and insecurities that he might not be up to the task. And while his arc isn’t as prominent, we still get to see him grow over the course of the story.
Then there’s Gibbs, Tov’s trusted royal advisor and friend, who we also get to see more of beyond his rule-following, scowling exterior. If there’s a brain behind Tov’s heart, then there’s a heart behind Gibb’s brain—and quite a noble one, striving to do better than less-than-stellar family members and struggling against fears and uncertainties. These two are also an unlikely pair of friends, but while we don’t get to see them interacting as much as we do Rinity and Amya, their dynamic is still so fun to read. Not to mention that the couples—Rinity and Tov, and Amya and Gibbs—both have their own enjoyable little arcs and dynamics (the first a very “love-at-first-sight” ordeal, the second a long denial of feelings that become too strong to resist).
Additionally, the side characters (like Siphone or Isaias) seem like real people, not simply a blank face to fill a particular role even when their roles are relatively small. Sauer did an excellent job polishing and portraying YoLA’s cast.
I’m a firm believer than strong characters can’t exist without strong plots (and vice versa), so while this book is very character-driven, the plot doesn’t suffer because of it. Sauer not only sets up a strong main structure for Rinity and Amya’s joint story goal, but weaves in several subplots into the story in such a way that they all connect without feeling contrived or meaningless. Every scene and chapter builds upon each other in a way that a) makes you want to keep reading and b) works to make strong character arcs and plot payoffs. As with RDG, Sauer also throws in recognizable parts of the fairytales she’s retelling (in this instance, Aladdin) without relying too heavily upon the original tale—this story is entirely her own, yet filled with little symbolic nods that are a treat for those who recognize their source. My only complaint is that some of the events later in the book seem to be too neatly resolved by the end, but because this book’s focus isn’t as much on the plot as it is the relationships, I find it easier to let that detail slide.
The story takes place mostly in a few specific locations in the capital of Liosa—the Royal Library, Rinity and Amya’s apartments, and the greenstone houses of Siphone and Gibbs. Because the reader gets to stay in these places for more than just a chapter or two (and, in part, because of my familiarity with some of the cultural aspects of Liosa from reading Rook Di Goo), there’s sense that the world isn’t just established but has history, providing a solid backdrop to the central players and action of the story. As always, I could’ve gone for even more worldbuilding, but I wasn’t left with a sense of the story lacking any important elements in that regard, and the new details I learned were well-executed and developed.
There’s little to no objectionable content in Yesterday or Long Ago, unless someone objects to reading about kissing—because there are more than a few instances of kissing (although they’re done tastefully). Some characters drink alcohol at social events. And that’s honestly it.
I was tempted to call this book a guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel guilty for enjoying it—it has all of the fun, romantic trappings of a classic novel like Pride and Prejudice, just set in a fictional sci-fi planet and with a subplot involving treason, and has a cast of dynamic characters that are as interesting as individuals as they are in their varying relationships. And while my rating of 4/5 stars might give the impression of not really loving the book, that isn’t the case—like Rook Di Goo, it’s sort of wormed its way into my heart, in spite of my usual preference for serious, 19th-century classics, and I think it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. Everybody needs a story or two that they can enjoy when they need something light and, ultimately, happy. Yesterday or Long Ago is one of those stories for me.