by Heather Walter
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: April 13, 2021
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
A princess isn’t supposed to fall for an evil sorceress. But in this darkly magical retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” true love is more than a simple fairy tale.
Once upon a time, there was a wicked fairy who, in an act of vengeance, cursed a line of princesses to die. A curse that could only be broken by true love’s kiss.
You’ve heard this before, haven’t you? The handsome prince. The happily-ever-after.
Let me tell you, no one in Briar actually cares about what happens to its princesses. Not the way they care about their jewels and elaborate parties and charm-granting elixirs. I thought I didn’t care, either.
Until I met her.
Princess Aurora. The last heir to Briar’s throne. Kind. Gracious. The future queen her realm needs. One who isn’t bothered that I am Alyce, the Dark Grace, abhorred and feared for the mysterious dark magic that runs in my veins. Humiliated and shamed by the same nobles who pay me to bottle hexes and then brand me a monster. Aurora says I should be proud of my gifts. That she . . . cares for me. Even though it was a power like mine that was responsible for her curse.
But with less than a year until that curse will kill her, any future I might see with Aurora is swiftly disintegrating—and she can’t stand to kiss yet another insipid prince. I want to help her. If my power began her curse, perhaps it’s what can lift it. Perhaps, together, we could forge a new world.
Because we all know how this story ends, don’t we? Aurora is the beautiful princess. And I—
I am the villain.
I’m a huge fan of fairy tale retellings, but I can’t say I’ve read many that focused on the supposed villain before. In this case, it’s a retelling of Sleeping Beauty told solely from Alyce, the “villain’s”, POV. And then I saw that The Tamora Pierce blurbed it, so that’s pretty much an auto-read for me.
“I’ll never be a heroine like Leythana. In Briar, I’ll only ever be a villain.”
Alyce has known she’s different since she was a child. While the other Graces – women who have a bit of Fae blood – are pampered and feted, Alyce was locked away and experimented on because she was part-Vila, semi-demons who are corrupted Fae. Graces use a drop of their golden blood to make elixirs. Beauty Graces can change your eye or hair color, music Graces can make you more talented. Alyce’s blood, on the other hand, can be used to reverse those potions, or other negative things like making your rival suddenly clumsy or sprout unwanted facial hair. But even while doing a steady business with members of the court, she’s still largely ignored by them and bullied by the other Graces of her house. And then she meets Princess Aurora. Due to a curse from a Vila, daughters of the royal family must kiss their one true love before their twenty-first video or they die. As the last heir, the pressure is on to find her love, but Aurora seems more interested in befriend Alyce, to her own confusion. With time ticking down, can Alyce work with Aurora to find a way out of her death sentence?
“What gives him the right to tell you who you are?”
Alyce was definitely an interesting character. We’re shown constantly how she’s mistreated, yet she still managed to be mostly kind, if wary, from rescuing and raising an injured bird to taking pity on a prisoner. Because of her Vila heritage, she’s also not stereotypically pretty, with lanky black hair, dry skin and green veins. Alyce has been told all her life that she’s a monster, that she’s less than the Graces. But through the course of the book – and her association with Aurora – what she discovered is that that’s not why she’s treated like that: it’s fear and jealousy that she’s more powerful than them. Learning to truly use and harness that power, with the help of a shady character, gave her the confidence to stand up for herself, and to question the truth of what she’s been told about the Vila.
“There’s nothing for me here. I’m tired of being a villain.”
“You were never a villain to me.”
But let’s be honest: what I was really here for is the relationship between Alyce and the princess. I liked how the relationship between them developed, slowly and in fits and starts. I thought their misunderstandings on both sides were believable, considering their upbringings, but I was frustrated with how on again/off again they were. Like Alyce, Aurora was desperate for control over her own life. She didn’t want to just simply wait around for the right man to kiss her, and enlisting Alyce into her schemes to find an alternative seemed like the best path. To Alyce, the idea that you could even chose your own path was revolutionary and even foolhardy, but eventually Aurora’s confidence inspires Alyce to stand up for herself. The thought that Aurora wished she could be more like Alyce – more capable of showing non-princessy emotions – was shocking and what really set into motion the rest of the book.
“Remember what I said, Alyce. About monsters.” The words are low, spoken in a tone that wakes something deep in my core. “Take care you don’t become what they think you are.”
I liked the worldbuilding, though there was a lot going on. From the formation of the Grace Houses to the Fae to the Vila to Leythana and why Briar’s always ruled by a queen… it’s a lot to take in. It did feel like it took a while for the plot to get moving just due to the sheer amount of not-quite-infodumping required to get the reader familiar with Alyce’s backstory and the situation she’s in, but once that happened the story moved along quite well. There was a twist toward the end that I thought glossed over some of Alyce’s development into a villain and, without going into spoilers, I didn’t like that it seemed to take away some of her own volition.
Overall, this is exactly what it set out to be – a sapphic fairy tale retelling from the villain’s POV – and I’ll definitely be picking up the second book in the duology.