Review: Strange Grace – A Beautiful Dark Fantasy

by Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky

Strange Grace

Title: Strange Grace
Author: Tessa Gratton
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date: September 18th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s):
YA Fantasy, Fairy Tales, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 400 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10





I am so damn conflicted about this book. After reading the first 50% I was ready to call Strange Grace one of the best books I’ve read this year and the title of the review, “Dark Fantasy At Its Finest.” I was utterly blown away. Then I read through the last half of the story, and I flipped the last page feeling…less enthusiastic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great story–but I feel like it could have been a brilliant one (from start to finish) and it ended up missing that mark by a couple of notches. And that just kills me.

Let’s get to the positives first (and there are a lot!):

Strange Grace is a dark, sensual story (never thought I’d say that about a YA) that explores love and passion and the idea that to live is to make sacrifices. The story is set in a secluded valley (called “Three Graces”) that’s surrounded by a mysterious forest. And in this forest lives a devil. Now, a long, long time ago, this devil had made a bargain with the founders of the valley: every seven years, the villagers will send a boy–their best boy–into the forest and have him survive its terrors. Survive, or die. For this sacrifice, the devil blesses the valley with magic–crops flourish, no one dies early, and wounds heal abnormally fast.

The prose is wonderfully rich. Dreamy and atmospheric, it reads very much like a fairy tale, except not the pleasant variety. This one has claws and fangs and blood dripping from its pores. It’s like those ancient stories told over the flickering of an open fire–the ones that say, “My child, the world hides beautiful, terrifying secrets.” It creeps through you like the tendrils of a song and leaves you entranced and gasping for more.

And like many fairy tales, the worldbuilding is hazy. We get the history of Three Graces and a couple of tidbits here and there about the cities beyond, but that’s about it. Some people might find it frustrating; I found it perfect. Because the worldbuilding isn’t the focal point of the story–that would be the characters.

At the heart of the story are Mairwen, Ruhen, and Arthur and their love for one another. Yes, this book explores polyamory, and it is done beautifully.

Mairwen is a witch and a descendant of the original Grace witch who had made the bargain. Her love for Rhun runs deep and her feelings about Arthur range from irritation to gruff affection.

Rhun is the next likely saint (or so everyone thinks). He’s kind-hearted, gentle, and so full of love for everyone and everything. The perfect saint candidate.

Except that he’s secretly in love with a boy.

Arthur has been raised as a girl until the age of six because his mother couldn’t bear the thought of losing him to the forest. So he’s spent the next decade or so trying to prove to every men in the valley that he’s just as strong and capable and male as they are. He’s molded himself into a moody, sharp-edged thing–prone to pick fights and dole out sneers.

Arthur was, unsurprisingly (to me, at least), my favourite of the trio. I loved his fire and his determination to take Rhun’s place as the sacrifice, not only because he wants to save him, but also to prove that he’s just as capable as the other boy. His heart is a turmoil of selfishness and selflessness, which I found that absolutely fascinating. I also really appreciated the way Gratton uses the character to explore societal expectations on gender roles.

“He chose the worst parts of boys, thinking they were the strongest when they were only the least girl

Now for the criticisms.

Character Development: While I quite liked Arthur’s character progression, I feel like Mairwen and Rhun’s progression just…stagnated after the first half. We also don’t see much interaction between Mairwen and Arthur, which is a shame because they’re so prickly with each other and I would have loved to see them work out their differences. Overall, I just felt a lot more disconnected from the characters in the latter part of the story.

The Kissing:

kissing book.jpg
This is very much a kissing book. The main characters kiss. The side characters kiss. The main characters kiss the side characters. There’s just a whole lot of smooching going on and, this may be a weird thing to say, I actually really like reading about kissing in stories–especially if it’s between friends. But I have to admit, there are times in this book when it gets a bit too much.

Pacing and Tension: This is probably my biggest complaint, aside from the character development. The pacing is weirdly sporadic in the second half of the story. The characters spend a whole lot of time seemingly doing nothing and then all of a sudden there’s a flurry of activities. Also, the tension that’s so evident and gripping in the first half dissipates in the second (at least for me). And the funny thing is that the dark horror stuff really ramps up in the latter sections, but I found myself less fearful for these characters than I was in the first half.

Despite my complaints, I still highly recommend this book, especially to those who loved the atmosphere of Uprooted and how the forest was kind of its own character. It’s written beautifully, it brims with love of all shades, and I very much look forward to seeing which dark corner of her imagination Tessa Gratton will take us into next.

Copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

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0 comment

Nadine - todaysechoes September 15, 2018 - 12:41 pm

I DNF’ed Uprooted. I couldn’t connect with the characters or the story, but I loved the writing. Maybe I’ll like this one more!
Great review 🙂

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 17, 2018 - 1:11 am

Thanks, Nadine! I actually think I like the writing for this one better than Uprooted. It’s more flowery, which is kind of my jam, so if you’re into that then yeah, definitely give it a try!

Nadine - todaysechoes September 17, 2018 - 1:56 am

Mine too! Thanks 🙂

Tammy September 15, 2018 - 1:23 pm

This was such a detailed review😃 I would probably have trouble with the pacing as well because I’ve read plenty of books like this, great first half, then the second half doesn’t work as well.

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 4:09 am

I got worried at point that I was giving away too many details haha. And I think it’s still worth a read, though! The atmosphere and the creep-factor alone makes it worth it. 🙂

acquadimore September 15, 2018 - 2:03 pm

Great review!
Oh, the disappointing second halves. I think Tessa Gratton isn’t that great with pacing in longer works (that was my main problem with The Queens of Innis Lear too. That one was also very much a Kissing Book) and that’s why I never love them as much as her short stories. But I’m glad to hear this was good anyway!
I was going to read it just because polyamory in YA, but after reading your review I want to read it even more because magical forests (Uprooted became a favorite book just for that, so…).

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 5:04 am

Oh, interesting! I guess the pacing is just something she’ll get better at as she writes more novels. I haven’t checked out her short stories yet, but now I’m curious!

And I love, LOVE magical forests in fantasy stories too. Without it, Uprooted would have just been an okay book for me. I’ll keep an eye out for more. 😀

waytoofantasy September 15, 2018 - 2:24 pm

Despite the mixed review I feel like I need to give this one a try. I mean, yu had me at ‘kissing book’. 🙂

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 4:40 am

Haha I should have put that as both a positive and a negative. 😀 And yeah, definitely try it! It’s quite an experience.

thebookprescription September 15, 2018 - 3:30 pm

“This is very much a kissing book”
lol, that made my day!
great review

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 4:41 am

Glad to be of service! 😀 And thank you!

meltotheany September 15, 2018 - 6:35 pm

Amazing review, love! 💕xx

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 4:59 am

Thank you, Mel!! <3 <3

Justine September 15, 2018 - 7:17 pm

I forgot about this book while keeping off everything but Twitter. It still sounds super interesting! Lately I’ve noticed I enjoy the unselfish selfish characters. Maybe because they’re way more relatable than when described lol. Lovely detailed review as always!

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 4:58 am

Thanks Justine! You were the one who introduced to me the book! And yup, noble characters are great and all but the kind-of-selfish are the ones I most relate to and love 😀

Justine September 18, 2018 - 6:37 am

Ohhh man loll. I haven’t gotten to it yet, too! And same! Noble characters are fun, but I always think aw man guess that’s it happening for me lol.

auroralibrialis September 15, 2018 - 8:44 pm

You were so right about this book being right up my alley, it sounds wonderful! The dark atmosphere, the woods, a witch (!!!), polyamory, fairy-tale vibes… I’m here for all of that. And can I just say this again, your write the most beautiful, nuanced reviews 💕

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 6:49 am

Seriously, Aurora, you’re *killing* me here with your kind words. Thank you!!! 💗 And I don’t read many witch books (I have no idea why–I guess I just never really find them in modern fantasy?) but this one makes me want to read ALL the witch books. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

jennifertarheelreader September 15, 2018 - 8:55 pm

I loved reading your thoughts on this, Kathy! You are always so well-balanced, well-written, and engaging. I have Uprooted, so I will start with that one. Someday. I think you may have seen it on my stairs?! I’ll still keep this one on my list, too. ♥️

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 5:07 am

*Blushes* Aw, thank you! 💗 And omg Jennifer, you should most definitely check out Uprooted! It’s got great female friendships, an incredible villain, and a magical forest that’s just so creepy and beautiful at the same time.

Meeghan reads September 15, 2018 - 10:19 pm

I’ve read so many could be creepily amazing books that seem to fall flat on their endings, and it’s so frustrating! The Wicked Deep and The Hazel Wood were two for me this year that were the same. I’ll probably still read this, but it can get annoying.

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 7:00 am

Oh, Hazel Wood! I’m still not sure if it’s something I want to try or not. The reviews I’ve seen were rather…polarizing.

Meeghan reads September 18, 2018 - 11:47 am

It’s great, until the end. Then I was kind of 🤷🏻‍♀️. I also have no idea how it’s going to be a series, I thought it was a stand-alone!

sjhigbee September 15, 2018 - 11:37 pm

I love your review – and yes… I’ve read those books – the ones that grip you from the first line, hold onto your heart and then let you go because during the second half, somehow the magic dissipates… You’re right – they’re a heartbreak.

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 5:15 am

Thank you, Sarah! And “heartbreak” is the perfect way to describe it. And those books make me appreciate just how much work it takes to write full length novel that’s magical from start to end.

Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight September 16, 2018 - 4:57 am

Oh that’s interesting, I actually liked the second half a lot more than the first. But I… didn’t enjoy this one as much as you did :-/ I’m glad you liked it though! I’ve seen a lot of rave reviews for this one, so I think I’m in the minority. You seem to have understood and appreciated the story and characters better than I did. In fact, your review kind of explained to me some things I couldn’t quite figure out, like how Mairwen and Arthur felt about each other. Great review!

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 23, 2018 - 6:11 am

Thank you, Kristen! I think a lot of the reviews I’ve seen fall under either “OMG I LOVED ITTTTT ” or “It was okay…I think? Maybe? I’m not sure?” So that’s been interesting to see! 😀 I do wish the characters got more time for deeper development.

Gerry@TheBookNookUK September 16, 2018 - 9:58 am

This book sounds right up my street! I have immediately added this to my TBR because of your review. I don’t know whether you had me at witch or devil or even ‘there’s a whole lot of smooching’ 😉

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 23, 2018 - 6:04 am

YESS I thought it be your thing!!! Haha, I should have put the smooching thing as both a positive and a negative, because everyone seems to be taking it as a positive 😀

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 23, 2018 - 6:06 am

*might be your thing

“I thought it be your thing” makes me sound like pirate

Gerry@TheBookNookUK September 23, 2018 - 10:16 am

It all depends on the smooching! And sound like a pirate as much as you like! 😉

Norrie September 16, 2018 - 1:25 pm

Well, i’m oddly intrigued 😀 Fantasy is not something i’d often pick, but i’m a sucker for dark stories with rich writing. <3

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 4:28 am

This one has elements of horror (like, holy hell, there are some grisly scenes) so it might definitely be more to your tastes than a traditional fantasy 😀

Mel September 17, 2018 - 5:26 pm

I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to read this one but your review has convinced me that I probably should. I am very interested in reading the polyamory aspect because that’s not explored a lot in YA. Great review!

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 3:17 am

Thanks, Mel! Yeah, I just about swooned when I realized there was polyamory in the story. Hope you enjoy it! <3

Kaleena @ Reader Voracious September 17, 2018 - 8:38 pm

Excellent review, and I completely agree with you about the character progression being mostly reserved for Arthur. He shone in my reading as well and was hands-down my favorite.

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 3:57 am

Thank you, Kaleena! That reminds me, now I gotta go check on your review! I usually avoid other people’s reviews of books that I’m currently reading/reviewing until I’m done because I’m afraid they’ll colour my own opinions. I don’t know if that’s just me haha

Kaleena @ Reader Voracious September 18, 2018 - 2:49 pm

Not just you, I do the same thing! Often times when blog hopping I will just check their rating and comment something like “skipped the review because I am planning to read but YAY or BOO” haha.

Meghan H. September 18, 2018 - 2:04 am

This is a great review, Kathy! I love dark and creepy stories, especially when they take place in a castle or a forest, and your descriptions of the atmosphere and the creepiness of the story sold me on the book! Thank you for this review, I’m really excited to get to Strange Grace!

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 18, 2018 - 3:55 am

Oh my goodness, thank you so much, Meghan! It makes me the happiest when people pick up the books that I reviewed. <3 The atmosphere in this one is exquisite. And the creep factor is high–like, there are fairies with sharp teeth! I hope you enjoy it!

dreamingofcats September 19, 2018 - 9:25 am

that’s awesome we finally have a YA book exploring polyamory! but I’m sad that all sides of the triad weren’t done justice, ideally you’d have enough page-time to develop the dynamics between all combinations of the three characters.

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky September 20, 2018 - 3:03 am

I know! I can’t believe it’s taken so long! Though I guess we don’t really see it much in fiction, period. And even though I wanted a bit more of an even development, I’m still pretty happy it exists. 🙂

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johannawritest November 3, 2018 - 4:53 am

so good

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky November 5, 2018 - 6:16 am

Thank you!

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