Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

this book: this mysterious, possibly evil character is known as The Sorceress Who Eats Girls
Acqua, immediately: 👀

Night Shine is, more than anything, a story about the importance of having a choice.
It follows a girl known as Nothing as she goes on a quest to rescue Kirin Dark-Smile, the prince and her closest friend, after he has been kidnapped by a Sorceress.
Hearing this premise, one might think they already know this story. They don’t.

The first thing you should know about Night Shine is that it is, from the surface to its heart, a very queer story. I’m not only talking about the characters, though of course that’s a major factor; I’m talking about what it prioritizes as well. Night Shine is a story that says, you should get to choose. Your name, over the one that was given to you. Your relationships, over what has been forced on you either through magic or norms. The way you define yourself, over an assigned gender or other kinds of restrictive roles.
For a story, having this kind of priorities means trope subversion, and this book is full of it.

Maybe the girl and the prince love each other, but not the way one would think, and maybe the girl is going to rescue the prince with the help of the prince’s secret boyfriend, his bodyguard Sky, and maybe the prince is charming, genderfluid, and also the most beautiful maiden of the realm, and maybe the sorceress is hot in a very gay way. Consider!

I always love to find new books to recommend to other gay villain romance fans, and Night Shine might be my favorite F/F example so far. The tension between the main character and the Sorceress… to give you an idea, I had to pause many times because I felt like spontaneously combusting, and that’s why this took me five days.

That’s far from the only reason this book deeply appealed to me, however. Another, maybe the most personal one, is that the main character’s arc is about understanding who she is and can be, and the first step in that is learning to want things. I was drawn to “Nothing” from the moment I met her, because I know the appeal of being functionally invisible and haunting the place you live in, unpredictable and unseen but more than anything unassuming, never-bothering, never really even occupying space if you can. And maybe that’s what you think you want, or maybe it’s a coping mechanism because the world is cruel, and it’s not all there is to you.

Then there’s the portrayal of intimacy. Back in 2018, Gratton’s Strange Grace was described by many as “full of kissing”, and I can say that it applies to Night Shine even more – people kiss! A lot! For different reasons and with different results! Like most binaries, the line between platonic and romantic isn’t a concern to this book, and this is particularly clear in the dynamic between the main character, Sky, and Kirin, which was so fascinating to read. They all love each other, it’s clear, but there are power imbalances and things turn sour – the relationship between Kirin and the main character takes a clear controlling bent, especially when contrasted with how she and Sky grow close without forcing any expectations on each other, allowing themselves to be surprised.

About Kirin specifically, I loved how he was portrayed. I know I’ve talked many times about the importance of portrayals of queer villainy, and queer flawed characters, from queer authors – and just like we get to have a sorceress who eats girls’ hearts and is a lesbian and a love interest, we get to have a genderfluid prince who is charming but also entitled and jealous, and portrayed sympathetically. We understand the reasons for his actions, and that’s why they hurt even more to read. I’m always here for books that understand that good and evil exist in shadows.
(Kirin is also not the only non-binary character who appears. The narration also uses he/him pronouns for Kirin, so that’s what I did, while it uses they/them for the other n-b character who appears.)

Another fascinating part of Night Shine are the names. Every character has a full name which almost reads like poetry; for example, Sky is The Day the Sky Opened, and another example is Sudden Spring Frost – and since we were on the topic of Kirin, it’s said that the main character starts using different full names depending on what he says about his gender that day, among which “Neither Kirin”, which is… so cool of a name. Then there’s the matter of “Nothing”‘s name, which is… plot-relevant and I’m not going to say more.

The writing was dreamlike, and yet I could see the setting so clearly – because this book knows the balance between giving enough descriptions to make everything feel real and bright but not too much to still leave some mystery and distance. In a world of sorcerers, demons, spirits and dragons, it only feels right – and the meticulous attention to detail helped, as usual for Tessa Gratton’s works.

I loved Night Shine a lot, even more than I loved Strange Grace in 2018; I think it might be a new favorite book of all time. I will know that for sure in a few months, but for now, I can say that there’s a good chance.

My rating: ★★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton

32824058Strange 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.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

35018908The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of King Lear.

It begins with the birth of an island, with one of the most breathtaking prologues I’ve read in a while. It draws you in, and you’ll need that, because this may be a well-written story with multilayered characters and intricate political dynamics, but it’s also a very slow tome of almost 600 pages and the retelling of a tragedy.

I decided to read this because I loved Tessa Gratton’s Before She Was Bloody story in the anthology Three Sides of a Heart. The main strengths of The Queens of Innis Lear are the one I expected: clear, lyrical writing, complex worldbuilding and characters I cared deeply for. I would read more set in this world torn between star worship and root magic, forever searching a balance; I want to see more descriptions of cities and castles and old rootwater wells – this story may be a tragedy, but this is one of the most beautiful fantasy worlds I’ve ever seen. And even when the characters and their bad decisions frustrated me, I understood their motivations.

The Queens of Innis Lear is the story of a mad king, his three daughters and heirs to the throne, and a young man – a bastard, a fox, a witch – who is returning to Innis Lear after a long exile in Aremoria. It’s mainly a story about politics and family, character-driven, and I believed in these characters’ relationship and rivalries. I liked almost all of them, even the ones who kept betraying everything and everyone who came in their way.

This book is not, however, without its weaknesses. There were many unnecessary scenes, flashbacks and even some unnecessary PoVs, which definitely didn’t help the already slow pacing. This is probably the slowest novel I’ve read this year, and just like most books over 500 pages, it could – should – have been shorter.
I loved the diversity, as this is about three biracial black princesses and there are many casual mentions of main and side characters being bisexual, but I really did not like what this book did with Gaela’s character. She is the elder sister, she’s heavily coded as aromantic asexual, and she is every single aromantic and asexual stereotype ever. She’s described as cold and heartless, she disdains everything that has to do with sex or romance and feels no emotions but anger. It was unnecessary, and she was probably the weakest character in the whole story; her PoV was very monotonous.

One of the things I loved the most about this book was the ending. It’s been a long time since a book made me really believe the main characters were in danger, and it also delivered – just like in King Lear, the ending is not happy, but I thought it was perfect, not as hopeless as it could have been.

My rating: ★★★½