THIS VICIOUS GRACE by Emily Thiede (BOOK REVIEW)
Three weddings. Three funerals. Alessa’s gift from the gods is supposed to magnify a partner’s magic, not kill every suitor she touches.
Now, with only weeks left until a hungry swarm of demons devours everything on her island home, Alessa is running out of time to find a partner and stop the invasion. When a powerful priest convinces the faithful that killing Alessa is the island’s only hope, her own soldiers try to assassinate her.
Desperate to survive, Alessa hires Dante, a cynical outcast marked as a killer, to become her personal bodyguard. But as rebellion explodes outside the gates, Dante’s dark secrets may be the biggest betrayal. He holds the key to her survival and her heart, but is he the one person who can help her master her gift or destroy her once and for all?
Emily Thiede’s exciting fantasy debut, This Vicious Grace, will keep readers turning the pages until the devastating conclusion and leave them primed for more!
Emily Thiede’s debut fantasy – or rather Romantasy novel – seizes the attention with its funereal opening, well literally a funeral for an opening and of the protagonist’s partner to boot! I haven’t seen a funeral used to set the scene so effectively since the opening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita. Our protagonist, Alessa, only eighteen, has accidentally killed off three partners which is unfortunate as the city of Saverio is relying on her finding a successful match if she is to fulfil her destiny and save her city from the impending crisis of Divorando.
The apocalyptic danger looming on the horizon gives enough threat to drive the narrative forward, but the demonic foe arrives to a very civilised timetable so the chapter headings can include a handy countdown (eg 16 days to Divorando). The phony war of waiting leaves plenty of time for civilised (and uncivilised) courtship as well as some court intrigue.
Perhaps because of the somewhat grimdark contemporary reality that we live in, there appears to have been a shift in speculative fiction fashion towards more joyful or comforting stories. We have seen subgenres like cosy Fantasy (eg Legends and Lattes) and also the emergence of Romantasy (Romance + fantasy – you see what they did there? – better that than Fantance!). Indeed, The Hive has recently interviewed Thea Gaunzon on her new Romantasy release The Hurricane Wars and Romantasy in general.
However, it’s not as if Romance has been an alien concept in fantasy fiction. Just think of Faramir and Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, or Jill and Rohdry in Katherine Kerr’s Daggerspell, or Naime and Makram in J.D.Evans Reign & Ruin. But – as with other subgenres (eg progression fantasy) – the difference or, more like, the nuance in Romantasy lies in the emphasis given to the romance elements in a story that must still have its villains and heroes, its conflict and quests, its twists and triumphs.
Thiede’s innovative magic system compels a romantic element as the salvation of Saverio relies on a bonded pair of magic users who can only become strong enough to defeat the enemy by working together, but the power relationship is surprisingly asymmetric. Alessa is the Finestra – there is only one at a time – and she discovered her chosen nature on the cusp of adolescence in a playground tussle that nearly turned fatal. In the years since, she has been sequestered in the citadel training for her destiny and waiting to select her Fonte. There are several fontes as candidates – young men and women with magical gifts of fire, or ice – impressive enough to make a good party trick but hardly enough to defeat an invading horde. The Finestra, by contrast, has no power of her own – merely the ability to draw out and massively amplify the power of her chosen Fonte. They are the source and Alessa is the window through which their power will be channelled to deliver Saverio. Except that she’s tried three fontes already and her touch has overwhelmed and killed each of them in turn, so the remaining fontes are getting rather bashful, and the populace somewhat anxious as Divoranda ticks ever closer.
I really enjoyed how Thiede’s skilful worldbuilding combined to set up both a fantasy and a romantic imperative and gave both narratives space to breathe and complement each other. In the best traditions of romance, the initial engagement between what are clearly our two romantic leads is inauspicious. Indeed, it is only Dante’s chiselled good looks that signpost he is – or will be – ‘the one’ well some kind of one anyway. But Dante has his secrets and Thiede’s plot twist and turns such that the path to romantic fulfilment and military success never feels certain and is full of surprises on the remorseless path to Divorando.
The story’s aesthetic has a strong Italian renaissance feel to it – even down to chapter epigrams in Italian (the ‘old language’), with helpful translations, and in that regard it reminded me a bit of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, or Angela Boord’s Fortune’s Fool.
Mark Lawrence in one of his admirable you-tube podcasts (this clip from about 2 minutes 30 seconds in) talked about descriptions that are just scraps of detail which trigger a whole host of subconscious associations in the reader and in so doing get them to do most of the heavy lifting work of imagination in their own head. In The Vicious Grace Thiede has something of a focus on baked goods as the form of detail that brings the setting to life. Alessa’s family – estranged of political necessity – are bakers, and one of the potential fontes frequently enriches everybody’s day with a bounty of deserts (better that than a desert of Bounties). For example, here’s a line of evocative detail which, in my case at least, transported me into the setting – colouring in the background for myself.
“Even before the tang of lemon zest and mandarinetto touched her tongue. Her mouth watered.”
The protagonists make a compelling pair and I enjoyed the banter of their verbal jousting as they danced around the bedevilling complications of circumstance and emotion, such as this little exchange after a night of excessive celebration.
“You aren’t dying. You’re hungover.”
“Why aren’t you hungover?”
“Do you want me to be?”
“Yes, I do. Very much so.”
“And here I thought we were such good friends.”
Thiede gives us a tight third person point of view narrative from Alessa’s perspective, so it is naturally her that we get to know best. She is a sufficiently feisty yet complex character to carry the weight of the story. Little more than a child she is thrust into responsibility, loneliness and guilt while struggling to do her duty despite the whisperings gathering against her from the frightened and unhappy populace. Her reactions and decisions do always seem reasonable responses to the circumstances she finds herself in – which is reassuring. (Protagonists who make stupid decisions in order to further the plot are one of my pet hates.)
Dante makes an engaging foil and the other characters also play their parts in bringing Alessa’s plight to a surprising but still broadly successful conclusion.
While Thiede’s prose makes allusions to the physical aspects of romance, it tastefully never descends into the explicit. However, the protagonists’ dialogue includes some innuendos bawdy enough to make the nurse from Romeo and Juliet blush,
“I adore bread. Especially baguettes. Long, thick, hot and slathered with-“
He hit the ground shaking with laughter. “Enough. Mercy. You’re a champion of lewd baking metaphors.”
The writing at times veers towards purple, though that may just be the close third person perspective bringing us Alessa’s thoughts, rather than the author’s.
She dragged her gaze from his mouth, but his eyes – warm and dark, like molten chocolate cake flecked with toffee – didn’t make it any easier to concentrate.
But there are other lines where Thiede’s prose flashes with brilliance.
The following day dawned too beautiful to trust.
Overall, I found This Vicious Grace an entertaining read as swiftly and enjoyably devoured as any of the cakes and deserts Thiede so eloquently describes. I like to find messages in books and Thiede slips in a few pithy observations about rules bound religions. The world and the plot are elegantly constructed to support the narrative. Some might say it feels a bit contrived, having this strange regular inundation of demonic threat, but all fantasy worlds are contrivances of one sort or another and Thiede at least abides consistently by the rules of her creation.
There is another message to be drawn from the book, one I suppose carried by all Romance and Romantasy, which is that humans are not built to be alone, that we thrive and prosper from our connections with others, and that ultimately is Alessa’s mission and destiny – to connect with someone without killing them!
This Vicious Grace is available now. Pick up your copy on Bookshop.org