Book Review: This Vicious Grace
This Vicious Grace, Emily Thiede's debut novel, shattered my heart, put the pieces back together, punched me in the gut, and finally gave me a cheeky grin and wave as it walked away, leaving me to eagerly await the second book in this duology. My response to this rough treatment is to quote an old meme at Ms. Thiede: "I can't believe you've done this."
Alessa is the Finestra of Saverio. She has the god-given power to draw on the magic of someone else (her Fonte) by simply touching them, and amplify it, using it as a weapon to defend the island from the inevitable onslaught of demon swarms that periodically attack the island. In theory, at least.
In practice, her power has the potential to kill, because it affects everyone she touches, not just her Fonte. She must make sure her skin is covered at all times, because a normal person would feel blinding pain if they brushed against her bare skin, and would die from prolonged contact. That is a given. However, as it turns out, her power is so strong that prolonged contact also kills her Fonte(s). No Finestra before her has killed their Fonte. And Alessa has killed three.
This unprecedented complication has led many of the scared citizens of Saverio to cling to the teachings of a rogue priest, Ivini, who is preaching that Alessa must be a false Finestra sent by Crollo (the god who also sends the demon swarms), and that the only way a true Finestra may rise is if they kill their false Finestra. Followers of Ivini begin making attacks on Alessa's life. One attacker actually tries to strangle her in her own bedroom, and the guard at her door who was supposed to be preventing such things tells her that she should have let the man kill her, as he helps the man away.
Not knowing who she can trust, Alessa reaches out to a young man she hadn't even met, but had seen looking at Ivini with disgust while the priest spread his lies. He is Dante, a cage fighter at a run-down bar near the docks, where the marked (criminals) congregate after dark, not being allowed into the city proper past curfew. Dante bears the mark of a killer, but Alessa disregards it--after all, she has killed three people before, albeit unintentionally.
At first, Dante refuses to be her bodyguard, regardless of Alessa's willingness to pay him. He only grudgingly agrees when Alessa cries, and promises him a place in the safety of the Fortezza when the demons attack--something that no marked criminal has access to.
Thus begins a beautiful partnership. Alessa finally has a (reluctant) companion, something which she has lacked since becoming Finestra, because everyone is too scared of her. Dante is as surly and brooding as someone tall, dark, and handsome can be, but despite his insistence that he is not a good person, Alessa never sees any evidence to convince her of this. In fact, quite the opposite.
The threat of Divorando (the attack by the demon swarm) looms, and Alessa has yet to choose a new Fonte from among the candidates who are left. She is terrified that the same thing that happened to her first three Fontes will happen to the next one as well. When pressed to make a choice, she instead invites all the remaining candidates to the Citadella, (the palace/fortress where the Finestra, Fonte [if living], and army reside), so that she can better get to know them and become familiar with their powers. Refusing to pick someone else to die, Alessa will not choose her new Fonte, but rather, the Consiglio (church/governing body) will--unless one of the prospects volunteers.
The day the potential Fontes arrive at the Citadella, their welcoming party is interrupted by a gruesome sight: Soldiers carrying in the corpse of a freshly killed demon, a scarabeo. This is the First Warning. Once Crollo sends his first warning, the people of Saverio have one month to prepare themselves for Divorando.
Will Alessa ever find out why the broody Dante insists he is a terrible person, even when he doesn't seem to be? Will she and Dante's working partnership blossom into something more? And most importantly, will Alessa finally be matched with a Fonte who survives her touch, so that together they may save Saverio from certain doom? Heh, I know the answers to these questions, but if you want to, you'll have to read the book.
As for the reviewy part of my review: This book is full of so many tropes and I am living for it.
Mysterious, broody love interest with a heart of gold? Check.
Bodyguard trope? Check.
Oh my God, they were roommates? Check.
Friends to lovers? Check.
Found family? Check.
I think there may be more than that, but those are all I can recall right now. The thing is, when some authors use a lot of common tropes they seem to overdo it, and it can come off as cringey. Thiede's use of tropes, however, is so well done that they fit into the story perfectly and don't seem forced. The tropes don't really stand out because the reader is so immersed in Alessa's story, and super-invested in her relationship with Dante. (It's me, I'm the reader).
Thiede's writing is reminiscent of Tamora Pierce's, in that she builds a lush, diverse, believable fantasy world, and uses beautiful prose when it's called for, but doesn't take herself so seriously that she's beyond putting in a few crude jokes or innuendos when warranted. While the stakes are high, and the pace teetering on the edge of being suspenseful, the reader has many chances to stop and breathe (and laugh)...(okay, and swoon, too) during the scenes that are primarily the characters getting to know/spending time with each other. Also, Thiede, like Pierce, writes some kick-ass, strong females.
Something else Thiede writes particularly well is character arcs. There is one supporting character *cough*Kaleb*cough that when introduced, I couldn't stand. Like, in a "I hope this character dies" kinda way. However, over time, he became tolerable. And suddenly, toward the end, I realized that I would actually be upset if he was killed. Another example is Alessa's character arc. At the beginning she is meek and obedient (not in a cloying way, though, she's still likeable), because although she is Finestra, she feels powerless. Her world is defined by the rules of others, and her inability to connect with anybody on a personal level (because they're all terrified of her) has left her a lonely shell. To everyone in Saverio, she is the Finestra, not a person. Nobody even knows her name. She's not allowed to tell them. As Alessa gets to know Dante, she begins to feel empowered. He doesn't treat her with the terrified deference she's used to from people in her vicinity. Even when the potential Fontes, who are essentially her equals in status, shy away from her, Dante treats her like a person, and she begins to feel like one again. I'm not going to spoil anything, but by the end, Alessa knows how to take control, and get shit done. If the rules don't make sense, she breaks them, and dares anyone to call her on it. She is their Finestra, after all. But now she sees herself as more than just that, and it shows in the way she leads her army.
Any nit-picky issues I might have had with This Vicious Grace were completely overshadowed by Thiede's amazing characters and plot. I don't really even remember the small things that momentarily snagged my attention. I was too busy reading on, because I wanted to see what happened next.
I give this book 5 big ol' shiny stars, and I eagerly anticipate the sequel.