Strange Grace is a high fantasy novel featuring a polyamorous relationship, terrible bargains, and the creepiest forest since Uprooted.
Which means, of course, that it was exactly my thing. I read it in less than a day – thanks to rivetedlit I could read it legally for free and not for the 11€ this ebook costs, but only for one day – and it’s been a while since I did that without skimming. I loved this book so much, for many reasons.
One of them is, of course, the polyamory representation. This is the first YA fantasy book I’ve ever read that follows a polyamorous (f/m/nb) triad, and it shouldn’t be this rare, for a genre that until 2016 was basically made up of love triangles.
The three characters involved are:
🍂 Mairwen Grace, the white daughter of the town’s witch, has always heard the forest call her. I love her a lot, but more than her I loved how her scenes were the ones that involved more creepy forest content, and there’s a reason for that;
🍂 Rhun Sayer, black. He’s the “best boy” in town, and as such, he will have to be sacrificed to the god of the forest. He’s sweet and selfless, but also wishes the people around him didn’t see him only as a sacrifice. He has been openly in love with Mairwen and more secretly in love with Arthur for a while;
🍂 Arthur Couch, white, all sharp edges and denial. He was raised as a girl by his mother who didn’t want him to ever become a martyr. He was “discovered” when he was six, and since then, he has struggled to fit in. His character arc about understanding that he didn’t need to fit into a box other people tried to force him in was one of my favorite parts of the book. It’s strongly implied that he is non-binary.
I loved all of them, especially because of their relationship dynamic, but I have to say that Rhun and especially Mairwen weren’t as developed as they should have been, and that Arthur ended up being a far more interesting character than both of them.
I loved Arthur also because of what he represented. In the acknowledgments, the author mentions her frustration with gender roles in modern paganism, and I loved what this book said about gendered magic. The worldbuilding is not trans-inclusive by any means, it’s intentionally binarist, but it lent itself to a really good exploration and dismantling of gender essentialism.
And let’s talk more about the worldbuilding: it isn’t in-depth, not really, but I actually prefer this for fairytale-like stories, explaining too much takes away the magic. It reminded me of the distant-and-yet-so-close feeling The Boneless Mercies gave me a few months ago. But that’s not to say the worldbuilding was bad or inconsistent; it just left a lot of things implied. It’s implied that this is set in a transphobic and homophobic society, but you see little of the transphobia and even less of the homophobia because you’re following a mainly-queer cast and these main characters aren’t – apart from some internalized stuff in Arthur’s case – homophobic or transphobic themselves.
I know it’s almost winter, but Strange Grace is such a fall book. It’s atmospheric and creepy and it’s set among the vivid reds and oranges of a forest during the fall. It’s beautiful, as books written by Tessa Gratton usually are – really, if you like pretty writing and atmospheric epic fantasy, read The Queens of Innis Lear – and it’s also deliciously bloody. So many twisted bargains and mysterious creatures.
Also: I didn’t see that coming. I don’t know how I missed that.
Strange Grace‘s pacing was better than I expected. I actually liked its structure and the way some things kept coming up through flashbacks. It added to the mystery and even to the atmosphere, in a way. But my expectations were low, because the Innis Lear book was so slow it was almost painful.
And there’s yet another reason this book meant so much to me: it’s about a creepy forest. I don’t like creepy forests just because they’re atmospheric and I love vivid settings, but because I grew up with an unlikely plant-related phobia. It’s just the kind of horror that appeals to me, I always feel like these books get it. The trees are as creepy as they’re beautiful and they’re not to be trusted.
But there are some things I didn’t love. While the side cast was interesting and had some really well-written characters like Haf, Vaughn, Baeddan and Adalyn, two of the main characters slightly disappointed me (but I still loved them). Also, something about the writing of this book felt very… pinterest? Like, it was beautiful, but I could just see from which pictures some of the body horror descriptions here came from. And another thing, since I’m nitpicking now: I’m tired of YA authors describing brown eyes as plain. Green eyes are emerald and surprising, blue eyes are intense, and brown eyes are… plain. It happens in so many young adult books. Can we not.
My rating: ★★★★¾
Content warnings for: death of a side queer female character, body horror, blood, transphobia.