Title: Strange Grace
Author: Tessa Gratton
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date: September 18th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s):
YA Fantasy, Fairy Tales, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 400 (hardback)
I am so damn conflicted about this book. After reading the first 50% I was ready to call Strange Grace one of the best books I’ve read this year and the title of the review, “Dark Fantasy At Its Finest.” I was utterly blown away. Then I read through the last half of the story, and I flipped the last page feeling…less enthusiastic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great story–but I feel like it could have been a brilliant one (from start to finish) and it ended up missing that mark by a couple of notches. And that just kills me.
Let’s get to the positives first (and there are a lot!):
Strange Grace is a dark, sensual story (never thought I’d say that about a YA) that explores love and passion and the idea that to live is to make sacrifices. The story is set in a secluded valley (called “Three Graces”) that’s surrounded by a mysterious forest. And in this forest lives a devil. Now, a long, long time ago, this devil had made a bargain with the founders of the valley: every seven years, the villagers will send a boy–their best boy–into the forest and have him survive its terrors. Survive, or die. For this sacrifice, the devil blesses the valley with magic–crops flourish, no one dies early, and wounds heal abnormally fast.
The prose is wonderfully rich. Dreamy and atmospheric, it reads very much like a fairy tale, except not the pleasant variety. This one has claws and fangs and blood dripping from its pores. It’s like those ancient stories told over the flickering of an open fire–the ones that say, “My child, the world hides beautiful, terrifying secrets.” It creeps through you like the tendrils of a song and leaves you entranced and gasping for more.
And like many fairy tales, the worldbuilding is hazy. We get the history of Three Graces and a couple of tidbits here and there about the cities beyond, but that’s about it. Some people might find it frustrating; I found it perfect. Because the worldbuilding isn’t the focal point of the story–that would be the characters.
At the heart of the story are Mairwen, Ruhen, and Arthur and their love for one another. Yes, this book explores polyamory, and it is done beautifully.
Mairwen is a witch and a descendant of the original Grace witch who had made the bargain. Her love for Rhun runs deep and her feelings about Arthur range from irritation to gruff affection.
Rhun is the next likely saint (or so everyone thinks). He’s kind-hearted, gentle, and so full of love for everyone and everything. The perfect saint candidate.
Except that he’s secretly in love with a boy.
Arthur has been raised as a girl until the age of six because his mother couldn’t bear the thought of losing him to the forest. So he’s spent the next decade or so trying to prove to every men in the valley that he’s just as strong and capable and male as they are. He’s molded himself into a moody, sharp-edged thing–prone to pick fights and dole out sneers.
Arthur was, unsurprisingly (to me, at least), my favourite of the trio. I loved his fire and his determination to take Rhun’s place as the sacrifice, not only because he wants to save him, but also to prove that he’s just as capable as the other boy. His heart is a turmoil of selfishness and selflessness, which I found that absolutely fascinating. I also really appreciated the way Gratton uses the character to explore societal expectations on gender roles.
“He chose the worst parts of boys, thinking they were the strongest when they were only the least girl“
Now for the criticisms.
Character Development: While I quite liked Arthur’s character progression, I feel like Mairwen and Rhun’s progression just…stagnated after the first half. We also don’t see much interaction between Mairwen and Arthur, which is a shame because they’re so prickly with each other and I would have loved to see them work out their differences. Overall, I just felt a lot more disconnected from the characters in the latter part of the story.
This is very much a kissing book. The main characters kiss. The side characters kiss. The main characters kiss the side characters. There’s just a whole lot of smooching going on and, this may be a weird thing to say, I actually really like reading about kissing in stories–especially if it’s between friends. But I have to admit, there are times in this book when it gets a bit too much.
Pacing and Tension: This is probably my biggest complaint, aside from the character development. The pacing is weirdly sporadic in the second half of the story. The characters spend a whole lot of time seemingly doing nothing and then all of a sudden there’s a flurry of activities. Also, the tension that’s so evident and gripping in the first half dissipates in the second (at least for me). And the funny thing is that the dark horror stuff really ramps up in the latter sections, but I found myself less fearful for these characters than I was in the first half.
Despite my complaints, I still highly recommend this book, especially to those who loved the atmosphere of Uprooted and how the forest was kind of its own character. It’s written beautifully, it brims with love of all shades, and I very much look forward to seeing which dark corner of her imagination Tessa Gratton will take us into next.
Copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review