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

Most Anticipated Scifi & Fantasy: Feb-April 2018

Most-Anticipated-Scifi-Fantasy-logo-slightly-smaller

2018 has some incredible books coming out, and since I can’t narrow the list down to a reasonable number (and since you don’t want to spend days scrolling through a blog post), I’m dividing them into chunks! Three months per genre, starting with Scifi and Fantasy. And yes, I’m lumping them into one.

FEBRUARY

The Armored Saint by Myke Cole

The Armored Saint
First of a trilogy, The Armored Saint is Myke Cole’s first foray into epic fantasy. I haven’t had a chance to read his Shadow Ops series, but I’ve heard many good things about it, so I figure this would be a good introduction to his writing.

The story features Heloise, a young village girl fighting oppression in a land of machines and magic. It sounds dark, gritty, and the themes are right up alley.

Releases February 20th

MARCH

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone

This YA fantasy debut has been receiving early accolatdes left and right, and no wonder. The cover is phenomenal, the worldbuilding sounds complex, and it’s already been nabbed by Fox for movie development. It’s yet another story revolving around oppression and revolution.

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Releases March 6th

Imposter Syndrome by Mishell Baker

Imposter Syndrome
Borderlines, the first book in The Arcadia Project series, is one of my favourite urban fantasy books and it introduced me to Millie Roper, who is, hands down, my favourite urban fantasy protagonist ever. Mishell Baker draws from her own experiences and seamlessly incorporates Millie’s BPD and disability into the story without letting it define her character. She’s clever, funny, and when she fucks up, she really fucks up.

I can’t wait to read more of her.

Releases March 13th

Master Assassins by Robert V.S. Redick

Master AssassinsIt’s been blurbed by Pat Rothfuss and given a rave review by Mark Lawrence–what more can I say? The generic title belies a summary that’s chock full of excitement and teases a dark adventure in a non-medieval setting. Most importantly, it promises something that I want to see more of in epic fantasy: sibling relationships. Plus, the cover features a saber cat and a lady whose arm appears to be on fire, which is always a cool combination.

Releases March 20th

 

Torn by Rowenna Miller

Torn
The first of the Unraveled Kingdom Series, Torn proposes a protagonist with a unique talent: magical dressmaking. I’m always on the lookout for fantasy stories that feature women in traditionally “domestic” roles, so this caught my eye immediately. Plus, it seems to have a bit of everything I love: revolutions, political intrigue, fancy balls, and romance.

Releases March 20th

 

Anna Undreaming by Thomas Welsh

Anna UndreamingAnna Undreaming is the first of the Metiks Fade trilogy. It’s an urban fantasy with a super fascinating premise–artists who can literally create new realities.

[Anna] finds herself hunted by Dreamers—artists, both good and evil, who construct new worlds—within a complex community that threatens to undermine reality itself. When Anna learns that she’s an Undreamer with powers she cannot yet comprehend, she must travel through their strange and treacherous creations to discover that there’s as much beauty in life as there is darkness. As her existence spirals into wonder and danger, Anna must look deep within herself and face the horrors of her own past, to save her old world as well as her new one.

Releases March 20th

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

The Queens of INnis Lear
Three Queens. One crown. All out war.

Tessa Gratton’s adult debut is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear with a feminist bent.

I’m very interested to see what changes, if any, are made to the original plot, and how the fantasy elements are woven in.

Releases March 27th

 

APRIL

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

Grey Ssiter

I swear Mark Lawrence gets better with every book he writes. Red Sister was his best one yet, full of intricate magics, violence, and exploration of female relationships, all woven with lush prose.

If he continues on in this trend, I have no doubt Grey Sister will be my new favourite Lawrence book.

Releases April 3rd

 

 

Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

Space Opera

Catherynne Valente has a talent for weaving magic and poetry into the strangest concepts. And Space Opera looks to be the strangest of them all:

Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.

It’s basically Eurovision in space. And I am not missing that for anything.

Releases April 3rd

Fire Dance by Ilana C. Meyer

Fire Dance
I sound like a broken record at this point, BUT JUST LOOK AT THIS COVER. It’s probably my favourite of the batch, which says a lot. Ilana Meyer’s debut, Last Song Before Night, was one of my top ten reads of 2015, and if this book is anything like the first, the quality of the cover will be a direct reflection of the content. Meyer has a deft hand for character development and atmospheric worldbuilding, and Fire Dance looks to continue Lin’s tale from where the first left off.

Though it’s technically a standalone, I highly recommend reading the first beforehand.

Releases April 10th

 From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris

From Unseen Fire.jpg

The Dictator is dead; long live the Republic.

But whose Republic will it be? Senators, generals, and elemental mages vie for the power to shape the future of the city of Aven. Latona of the Vitelliae, a mage of Spirit and Fire, has suppressed her phenomenal talents for fear they would draw unwanted attention from unscrupulous men. Now that the Dictator who threatened her family is gone, she may have an opportunity to seize a greater destiny as a protector of the people—if only she can find the courage to try.

There are three more paragraphs to the summary, and I get stupidly excited every time I read through them. Set to be the first in the Aven Cycle, From Unseen Fire is a mesh of alternate history and fantasy that I needed yesterday.

Releases April 17th

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Time Was

In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.

Yet another blend of history and SFF, I’m intrigued by the unique concept and its potential to break my heart in two.

Releases April 24th