Blood Water Paint — Joy McCullough (ARC Review/Blog Tour)

March 9, 2018


TITLE: Blood Water Paint
AUTHOR: Joy McCullough
RELEASED: March 6th, 2018; Dutton Books
GENRE: Historical Fiction
“When I finished this novel, I knew I would be haunted and empowered by Artemisia Gentileschi’s story for the rest of my life.” –Amanda Lovelace, award-winning author of the princess saves herself in this one
Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.
She chose paint.
By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.
He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.


Content warnings: sexual assault, misogyny, suicidal thoughts, violence, brief physical torture, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, murder, betrayal.

I will show you what a woman can do.


When I was given the opportunity to participate in a blog tour for this book’s release, I was absolutely elated. I didn’t know much about the writing itself, but I knew that it was historical fiction (check), feminist (check), widely beloved by a slew of my favorite authors (check), and about an actual human being (check). Those were all of the traits that I was expecting, but what I wasn’t expecting was for the book to be written mostly in verse (incredible), partially in second-person narrative (haunting), one of the heaviest and most heart-breaking things I would ever read (devastated me), and one of the single most important works of literature to ever grace my shelf.

I wish men
would decide
if women are heavenly
angels on high,
or earthbound sculptures
for their gardens.
But either way we’re beauty
for consumption.

Artemisia’s words are beautiful, angry, passionate, and chilling—but if you already know where it’s headed, it’s a tough one to read. Have you ever watched two vehicles collide? It feels like time slows down right before it happens, and of course, you wish you could stop it before it begins, but you’ll never be quick enough. You’ll never manage to go back in time, to put yourself in exactly the right moment, the right space, to prevent these damages from occurring. That feeling—that utter helplessness—was precisely where I found myself through every page I turned.

She did not ask for the beauty that attracted him. She did not ask for gold and jewels. To you these might seem like unimaginable luxuries. But beauty is a heavy crown.
So is womanhood.

The painter isn’t some flawlessly happy protagonist: she’s angry, exhausted, and bitter, but in all the best ways. At such a young age, she’s already seen enough of the world to become jaded. We don’t have to watch Artemisia learn distrust—it’s already there, right where it’s been since the day of her birth. Right where it’s been since the day any baby girl is born into a world that wants to raise her like a lamb for the slaughter.

That’s just the way of things.
I beg and fight and scrape
for scraps while he just has to glance
upon a thing to make it

I adored Artemisia’s tenacity, her weariness with the world of men, because I related so strongly to it. After twenty-five years on this earth, I’ve seen and felt enough to nearly lose hope, and in the verses our painter weaves, there’s this beautiful, bittersweet sort of comfort. There’s a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, a voice saying, ”I know you’re angry. I know. Me, too.” It’s everything I wish I’d had as a little girl. It’s everything I want little girls to have, present and future. I want stories that tell young girls, already red-faced from the touches and gazes of society, that it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to want more, and better.

(Sometimes that’s all you need, my love—another woman’s faith in you.)

Alongside Artemisia’s poetry, we get brief glimpses of her late mother’s bedtime stories in prose. Her mother has passed on years before the story takes place, but the second-person narrative we’re given from her is so beautiful and fiery that it makes it impossible not to love her, despite never actually “meeting” her. We instantly see where Artemisia’s fire comes from. More than that, as a mother, I’m reminded of how easy that flame is to pass on when we nurture its spark.

(If you remember nothing else of Susanna, remember how she speaks her truth. She knows it will cost her something. She’s not aware yet quite how steep the cost will be, but still, she speaks her truth.)

And if you’re thinking to yourself that all of these words are empty insults flung at kindly, innocent victims, wrongfully attributed with malice where they meant only compliments and courting, Joy McCullough stops you there, too. Blood Water Paint isn’t just a story of anger and assault. Artemisia’s attacker isn’t just the handsome teacher with the roaming hands and hips—it’s the judge and jury, too. It’s the entire world of onlookers, literally torturing her in hopes that she will rescind her claims, accept the loss of what was ripped away from her and tuck herself away into a silent corner while the world spins on.

Is this all I get?

I wish I could say this was just a beautiful story, but what you have to know is that Artemisia was a real woman. This is her true, brutal story. These are her truths, taken from the chapters that will never make it into most history texts. More than just her truths, these are the truths of 1 in 6 American women (and 1 in 33 American men, with higher rates for trans women and trans men, respectively). These are the truths of individuals of all walks of life, all gender identities and sexual orientations, all nationalities and skin colors, all religions and ages, all wealth classes and educational statuses, worldwide, today. This book may be historical fiction, but nothing about what happened to Artemisia has been left in the past.

Not all stories have happy endings. I cannot promise this one will either. But I am certain you will be glad you stayed with Susanna to the end. She deserves that much—a witness, one who says I see you, hear you.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Blood Water Paint, though, is one I haven’t touched upon yet: how incredibly, desperately, unspeakably vital it is that we listen to victims and believe their stories.

When a woman risks
her place, her very life to speak
a truth the world despises?
Believe her. Always.

Through Artemisia’s story, and her mother’s bedtime tales of the biblical Susanna and Judith, we are reminded again and again that we—especially those of us identifying among the same groups who are at highest risk for assault—absolutely must support, love, and trust victims when they come to us. Whether we are survivors or not, it is so essential that we take the necessary steps to creating a world where we put rapists on trial, not victims.

“You would have done whatever you had to do to survive the moment. And you would have received no judgment from me either way.”

I think I could stretch this review on for days, with the way this book impacted me. Blood Water Paint is brutal. It will not kindly lead you into its metaphors and parables; it will leave you breathless from gut punches you didn’t see coming. As a survivor, there are phrases in this book that mirrored my own thoughts so profoundly that my own blood felt like ice in my veins. I implore you, please practice self-care while reading—but please pick up a copy of this book. Find it in a bookstore, ask your library to add it to their collections, borrow it from a friend. Get this story into your hands and let it break you open and remind you of how far we still have to come. Let it remind you of the actions you can take to help us get there.

If you or a person you love are a victim of sexual assault and need someone to talk to, please don’t stay silent. Please seek help. There are helplines and support systems in place. And whatever you do, never be afraid to speak your truths. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 800.656.HOPE (4673), or log on to the RAINN site at to find a local service provider who can help you with counseling, legal advocacy, healthcare, and more.

All quotes come from an unfinished ARC and may not match the final release. Thank you to Dutton Books for providing me with this ARC in exchange for my honest review.



Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. Blood Water Paint is her debut novel.


2/28 – The Fox’s Hideaway – Review
3/1 – Kaitbooktopia – Author Guest Post – Favorite Artemisia Painting
3/2 – JustAddaWord – Review
3/5 – Novel Ink – Review
3/6 – Adventures in YA Publishing – Q&A
3/7 – Bi Bookish Babe – Q&A
3/8 – Megan Write Now – Q&A
3/9 – Howling Libraries – Review
3/12 – Magical Reads – Review + Creative (hand lettering quotes)
3/13 – Crimson is Blogging – Review
3/14 – The Fandom – Author Guest Post – Her road to publication
3/15 – Wanderer in Neverland – Review
More about Destiny @ Howling Libraries

Just a horror aficionado/geek girl trying to juggle motherhood, reading, blogging, gaming, and everyday life.

Leave a comment
    1. I heard about this for the first time the other day! It looks really lovely and important, but I don’t feel like I’m in the mood for verse prose atm. Hopefully I’ll get to it eventually. 🙂

    1. That’s just the way of things.
      I beg and fight and scrape
      for scraps while he just has to glance
      upon a thing to make it
      That quote. Holy cow. I already added this to my TBR, but it just got pushed up the list. Wonderful review, Destiny!

    1. Beautiful review of what sounds like an absolutely beautiful book! So many of these quotes gave me chills. I’m so glad to hear it was such a moving read for you!

    1. i LOVE your review and i agree with everything you just said. it was a book i picked up randomly thanks to this tour happening and wow it just blew me away. it was so easy to just feel for artemisia and seeing what she went through really made my blood boil. i had many feels for this book and i think it’ll be one of my fav reads this year (and the year is only starting and there’s so many books to read still lol)

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