Review: Strange Grace – A Beautiful Dark Fantasy

Strange Grace

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)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

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.

The Kissing:

kissing book.jpg
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

Moving from YA to Adult Fantasy – Because Not All Adult Fantasy is BDSM Elves

When you’re a small child and you happen to be a frequent visitor of libraries, there’s a certain sense of ritual in moving up from one range of grade-level shelves to the next. It’s the bookish version of being elevated from squire to knight. Except you’re the one holding the sword and tapping your own shoulders. Dub dub. Rise up, Sir Katherine, Explorer of Magic Treehouses, Rescuer of Princesses in Paper Bags. Rise up in the name of our Lord Dewey.

The first time I moved from the children’s section to the YA–out from the forest of rotating pillars of chapter books to the towering skyscrapers of hardbacks and paperbacks, some even thicker than the width of my hand–I felt so damn proud and mature. I strolled over, chin-high, all four-feet of swagger and the dumb little-kid cockiness that comes with knowing that you read way above your grade-level–that you’re a “mature reader,” whatever that means. I browsed over those shelves like I’d always belonged there and knew exactly what I was looking for.

Well, when I was thirteen or so, I decided to take the same stroll over to the Adult Fantasy section. My shoulders were set. I did my casual, totally-mature-enough-for-this perusal. And my eyes caught on a particular name: R.A. Salvatore. Wow, I thought. Now that is a fantasy author name. So I snagged one of the copies and took it to the check-out counter feeling pretty good about myself.

Hours later I was staring at the pages in horror. See, up to that point I had only been exposed to one type of elves in fantasy: the pretty, regal ones from Tolkien’s world. The ones that look like they’ve been airbrushed to hell (or heaven) and back in the movies. Then I discovered Salvatore’s female drows, who were apparently very mean, casually-whip-carrying elves with a penchant for dealing out physical punishments.

I was reeling.

Was this what all modern fantasy was like? Dominatrix elves?

I stopped about two chapters in, wiser of the depraved ways of adult fantasy lovers, then reread Artemis Fowl in an attempt to cleanse my brain.

I eventually discovered books that were much more appealing for a middle school girl, and realized that, no, not all adult fantasy is BDSM elves (though nowadays I wouldn’t exactly complain if it were).

So if you are a teen, or an adult who wants to take a first dip into adult fantasy, here are some recommendations for books–new and old, popular and less-known–that blur the line between YA and adult, and may help make your transition a little less…traumatic.

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1. First Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn-collage

Most of Sanderson’s work is accessible for younger audiences, in my opinion, but I think the first Mistborn trilogy serves as the best jumping-off point to the Cosmere universe. The series is chock full of great worldbuilding and one of the most dynamic magic systems out there, but the characters are what really sells the story. Vin’s struggles to find acceptance and love, amidst revolutions and wars and political turmoils, is one that anyone can easily empathize with. Her journey from unknown street urchin to hero will leave you fist-pumping and clinging to the edge of your seat.

2. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the Forest
The first in a series that is one of my all-time favourites, Daughter of the Forest is a take on a classic fairy tale, The Six Swans, in which a sorceress turns her stepchildren into swans. Well, all except for one–Sorcha, the sole daughter of the Sevenwaters family. The curse on her brothers will only be broken if she can make six shirts out of nettle plants (starwort, in this version) and remain silent through the duration of the task. It’s a story that is at once otherworldly and so utterly human–one of old magics, families, and sacrifice. Sorcha’s selflessness and courage and love in the face of unrelenting evil was nothing short of inspiring to me as a teenager. I think it was one of the first books I read where a “strong female protagonist” didn’t simply equate to a genderbent version of a male fantasy protagonist–physically strong, snarky, and hating “traditionally female” tasks. Though there are many retellings of the original story, Marillier’s version is one that all young women (and men) should read.

3. The Silvered by Tanya Huff

The Silvered
The Silvered is a shapeshifter story done to perfection. Aydori is a kingdom in which werewolves and mages coexist and rule together via marriage. One day, the neighbouring Empire decides to swoop in and kidnap five Mage-Pack women and everything is thrown to chaos. Now it’s up to Mirian Maylin, a mage with very little magical ability, and Tomas Hagen, brother of the Wolf Pack leader, to rescue them.

This may seem like a typical paranormal romance at a glance, but it’s not. Mirian is no heroine falling head-over-heels for the mysterious wolf boy, and Tomas is no brooding alpha douche. She’s a no-nonsense young woman with a practical approach to everything, and he’s a confused young man recovering from a recent tragedy. They’re complex characters and to see their relationship develop from wary trust to friendship (and more…?) is an absolute delight.

4. Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker

Age of Assassins
If any (softcore) grimdark deserves to be displayed on the YA table at the local bookstore without leaving me shaking my head in bafflement, it’s Age of Assassins. Fifteen-year old Girton Clubfoot is an assassin-in-training with a master who is, arguably, the best in the land. But he’s also a sheltered teenager. And when he and his master become tasked with preventing the assassination of the kingdom’s crown prince, he finds himself flung into a whirlwind of court politics. Girton is an utterly likeable character and his struggles to navigate the social cliques within the castle, fend of bullies, and deal with first-time crushes are things that all young readers can relate to.


5. A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin

A Green and Ancient Light
A Green and Ancient Light is one of those stories that feel timeless, perfect for anyone–child, teen, or adult. It’s old riddles and magical creatures and discovery of worlds that exist just beyond our own. It juxtaposes the beauty of childhood and fairy tales with the harshness of human conflict.

I would compare my experience with it to sitting on a porch on an early summer evening with my eyes closed, basking in the the caress of the waning sunlight.

A soft, gentle story for fans of The Book of Lost Things and Over the Garden Wall.