I *think* the first person I saw post about this book was @manicfemme (though I know I later also saw it on @booksnblazers page). So, credit where it needs to be there. But also, I knew the moment I saw it that I wanted to read it. I freaking love a good fairy tale retelling, especially with twists on the POV or the relationships, so this one was right up my alley. Plus, what a gorgeous dark, purple cover!
Malice is a Sleeping Beauty retelling, but from the perspective of the “evil” sorceress and with a spectacular sapphic reframe. Alyce is the Dark Grace. While all the other Graces get their power from the Etherian light magic, and use their golden blood to make elixirs for beauty and charm and music and wisdom, Alyce is part Vila (the only one left that anyone knows of) and people come to her for an altogether different kind of magic. Her green blood can make elixirs that have…uglier…outcomes. Scorned and ostracized by everyone, Alyce lives a life on the outskirts, until she meets Aurora, the princess, the very last princess in the cursed (but only legitimate heir to the throne) line of Briar Queens. Aurora treats Alyce differently, sees past what everyone says about her, and together they start to research ways to break the curse that is not getting kissed by multiple nobles daily in the search for Aurora’s “one true love.” At the same time, Alyce has found a mentor that is teaching her how much more to her magic there really is, the Briar King is plotting some truly terrible things, the tension between Etherians and humans is growing, and Aurora and Alyce’s growing connection may have the strength to break curses, but will that be accepted?
Basically, the first line of that summary alone was a win for me. Sapphic Sleeping Beauty where the princess and the sorceress fall for each other? Yes, please. And I can tell you that on that front, this novel absolutely delivered. Like, this was one of those reads that I legitimately could not put down (stayed up way past my bedtime to power through the end of it). This is definitely, totally, absolutely a Sleeping Beauty retelling, but I also just have to say I loved the little nods to Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, and maybe others, that I found while reading (maybe I projected them…but I’m going with that they were on purpose). Anyways, back to Sleeping Beauty. All the important aspects are there, but with some really fun new twists. I loved the inclusion of all heirs being cursed to die if not kissed by their true love by 21 years. It’s hella tragic, but adds a great layer of drama to the story unfolding on a timeline. It also added layers like the history of why (with the female line of hierarchy for the Briar Queens, but how their power has been diluted over years, etc.) which was some nice complexity. It definitely raised some questions for me, like this is definitely a situation of fated love because strangers can break the curse, but also, what does that mean for Aurora and Alyce (their relationship was much deeper than insta-love)? Not necessarily a criticism, but just some musings on the nature of true love, as I was reading. I also was super into the magic system. Blood magic always fascinates me, in the ways it is used, can be exploited, and also in its limitations. It was pretty creatively used here and I enjoyed learning it. And I was definitely into Alyce’s abilities as she starts to learn she is more, much more, than what she’s been told. Such cool power!
Within the context of the story, I felt like Walter did a super nice job exploring myriad types of cages – from the Graces, who have so many rules (“for their own protection”) with their power use, to the literal cage that Alyce’s mentor Kal is in, to the socioeconomic/political limitations found in most societies based on what is valued, to the nicely opposite but paralleling cages that Alyce and Aurora both live within. There are so many ways these characters are trapped and used with little personal choice that, even when the betrayals come at the end, you can’t help but kind of understand their motivations and have a little sympathy. Let me also say that, while I figured one was coming (it was just a question of why/motivation), there was another that took me completely by surprise and definitely hurt to read. That being said, after the way Alyce was treated and used and manipulated her whole life, with the singular exception of Aurora, I was here for the way this book ended. I mean, I have to say that I didn’t do my research and I totally thought this was a standalone, so I was “meh” on finding out that it’s actually a duology and I’m gonna have to wait to see how it wraps up…ugh I hate waiting…but also, I really feel Alyce at the end and do really look forward to more of her. After all the revelations and betrayals and loss and (inevitable but mostly undeserved) guilt, her full on coming-into-power moment was exactly, exactly what I wanted for her.
I do have to say that there are a couple things I could have used more of as I was reading. Well, mostly, I just wanted a little more detail. There are a few explanations related to Alyce’s story, the cursed line of Briar Queens and the current King’s plans that I wasn’t quite clear on… I mean I got the big picture and so I sped through without it really bothering me too much, but I have some niggling questions about not really understanding all the background and motivations that I wish I had answers to. I assume some parts we might get more of (about Alyce herself, especially) in the next book, so I’m ok there. But regarding the King’s plans and some of the history between Etherians and Vila and humans and just a few other plot points, I would have appreciated a little more depth. Plus, the one Sleeping Beauty detail that felt forced was the inclusion of the spindle…and I get it, aesthetically, but I would have been fine with sleeping being induced in a more understandable-in-the-setting way. Finally, the first and second halves felt very differently paced. It opened with great world-development and then, as the plot moved forward the pacing moved to almost a breakneck speed and I think that is, in part, where some of those details in development started to get lost. Once all the character development and baseline plot was “set” and we began moving forward from there, it became all plot, with very little time for character changes/background explanation and, with all the moving pieces and different aspects coming together at one time, it felt a smidge chaotic.
Overall, though, I was just super into this book. Yea there were small things that would have made it more perfect, but I got everything I wanted and was looking for from it. Alyce’s misunderstood perspective was done so well – she was the dark narrator of my dreams! The magic system and world details really made me believe it all. I thought the side characters, like Kal and Alyce’s fellow Graces (Rose and Laurel in particular), were given some real nuance and I appreciated that attention. And of course, the Alyce and Aurora situation was the highlight – a perfect opposites coming together – given time to develop pretty realistically and I am very much looking forward to where their story goes from here. We’re at the dramatic point where Aurora is sleeping, Alyce is going to have to figure out her power and her next steps, many allies and enemies are in confusion and switching roles, and there’s a whole lot on the line for Briar…now I just have to be as patient as possible to see how it all plays out. Help!