Book: “Strange Grace” by Tessa Gratton
Publishing Info: Margaret McElderry Books, September 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss
Book Description: Long ago, a village made a bargain with the devil: to ensure their prosperity, when the Slaughter Moon rises, the village must sacrifice a young man into the depths of the Devil’s Forest.
Only this year, the Slaughter Moon has risen early.
Bound by duty, secrets, and the love they share for one another, Mairwen, a spirited witch; Rhun, the expected saint; and Arthur, a restless outcast, will each have a role to play as the devil demands a body to fill the bargain. But the devil these friends find is not the one they expect, and the lies they uncover will turn their town—and their hearts—inside out.
Review: I requested this book a whim based on the book description and, frankly, the beautiful cover art. I mean, c’mon, that’s one attractive book cover! But the description also appealed to me, seeming to follow some standard fairytale modes of storytelling as well as focusing on the love and friendship between three characters. While I did feel there were a few stumbling blocks and surprises along the way, I think “Strange Grace” will be a sure fire hit for many audiences.
A small village has existed in a state of semi-paradise for many, many years. No one is ever injured or killed. But this idealic life is bough with a steep price. Every seven years, the town folk must sacrifice a boy to the dark woods to buy themselves another period of safety. But this year is different, falling only a few years after the last sacrifice, a new boy is already being demanded. Three friends find themselves searching for an answer to what seems like an impossible choice, and they and their town will never be the same again.
The strongest aspect of this book for me was the writing and the tone. While I don’t typically read straight up horror novels, I like dark fantasies. A few that come to mind as similar to this are “The Beast is an Animal” and the “Raven Cycle” series. Each delve into magical elements, but instead of fairies and unicorns, there’s a lot more dark shadows and tree branches shaped like fingers scraping at our heroes’ backs. So, too, here. ‘”Strange Magic” fully embraces its own dark themes and doesn’t pull back from exploring some fairly graphic body horror. While I enjoyed most of the creepiness here, there were bits that were a stretch for me, so go in with that warning.
So, too, this story also aligns similarly to those previously mentioned fantasy novels in writing style. The writing is lyrical, whimsical, and edged with unexpected sharp points at times. For those looking for straight forward writing this might be a bit off-putting, but if you are a fan of the writing found in books like the “Raven Cycle,” this is very well might appeal to you. I for one found it lovely and was immediately caught up in the weave of the story.
What did hold me up, however, was the pacing. While the writing was beautiful, it didn’t do quite enough to distract me from the fact that the first 40-50% of the story was very slow-moving. What’s worse, that slowly built arc was never fully resolved. The story moved as if a climax of sorts was coming, but instead the author chose to use some odd time jumps that leap-frogged right over some of the parts of the story that I had been most looking forward to experiencing. It was an odd choice that made the story feel choppy and unresolved.
The other stumbling block was the characterization of our main trio. There is a lot of diversity to be found in this group of individuals, and if you’re looking for a fantasy story that features non-binary leads, than this is a great book to find that. But other than representation alone, I never felt fully invested in any of the three characters. I understood their individual motivations and histories, but as the story unfolded, I could never quite latch on to how they were processing their own experiences. There was a lot of “telling” and not much “showing” as far the relationships between them all went. One relationship is already established when the book begins, and not much is done to expand that much further, even though events occur that would at the very least warrant a re-evaluation of how each members is experience said relationship. Instead, we are simply told that characters feel a certain way and don’t see much internal dialogue about how they are processing these changes. Another relationship between another two is established with only a few brief conversations, but based on that, we are meant to understand that they, too, have deep feelings. In the end, as far as characters go, I was simply left wanting more.
Overall, I like much of the writing and fantasy/horror aspects of the book, but I struggled more with the pacing/structure and the characters themselves. However, if you like dark fantasies and are looking for a diverse cast of characters, “Strange Magic” is definitely worth a look!
Rating 7: Beautiful writing and truly creepy dark fantasy was a bit hindered by a clunky plot and characters who never felt like they quite connected with reader or with what was happening around them.
“Strange Grace” is a new title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 YA Books with LGBT Themes.”
Find “Strange Grace” at your library using WorldCat!