Monday 29 October 2018

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Review: Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton

Strange Grace by Tessa GrattonStrange Grace by Tessa Gratton (Bought) - Once, a witch made a pact with a devil. The legend says they loved each other, but can the story be trusted at all?

Long ago, a village made a bargain with the devil: to ensure their prosperity, when the Slaughter Moon rises, the village must sacrifice a young man into the depths of the Devil’s Forest.

Only this year, the Slaughter Moon has risen early.

Bound by duty, secrets, and the love they share for one another, Mairwen, a spirited witch; Rhun, the expected saint; and Arthur, a restless outcast, will each have a role to play as the devil demands a body to fill the bargain. But the devil these friends find is not the one they expect, and the lies they uncover will turn their town—and their hearts—inside out.
From Goodreads.

I've been looking forward to reading Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton for such a long time, as it sounds so awesome! And while it wasn't the story I was expecting, I enjoyed it overall, in the end.

Long ago, a witch made a bargain with the devil, so that her town of Three Graces would prosper. No-one would fall ill, injuries would heal quickly, the harvest would be successful, and they would get just the right amount of rain and sunshine. But there is a price to this bargain; every seven years, during the Slaughter Moon, Three Graces' best boy - the saint - must run in the Devil's Forest, to die, or to survive. This is how it has always been in Three Graces, and the townsfolk accept and are grateful for the bargain that grants them their easy lives. However, the Slaughter Moon has risen this year - four years before it was due. Gracious, joyful, good Rhun is the expected saint, and he takes his duty seriously and knows what an honour it is, despite him having to run much earlier than expected. But his friends Mairwen, a Grace witch, and Arthur, and angry young man who doesn't fit in, are scared about what the early Slaughter Moon means, and if Rhun running will keep the bargain going anyway. They are determined not to let their best friend run alone and possibly face his death as he runs from the devil, and join him. But in the Devil's Forest, they discover secrets and lies about the bargain that are kept from the people of Three Graces, and that the devil is not who they expect.

Strange Grace is an atmospheric and beautiful historical fantasy/horror, set in a small town that keeps itself separate from the rest of the world, and is almost a world of it's own. While I loved Strange Grace overall, I was quite frustrated to begin with. It was just started off really slow. I was quite impatient for it to get going, but considering that, from the description, I thought the majority of the story would feature Rhun, Mairwen and Arthur in the forest running from the devil - when in actual fact, their run is only a small part of the whole story - it really frustrated me that it took almost half the book before they enter it. I do think it could have been edited to up the pace and take up less time, but having read the whole story now, I understand that we did need some of the slow build up, to really get to know the people of Three Graces, what they believe about the bargain and the sacrifice, to learn their folklore, stories and history, and how they feel about the bargain.

Although I was eager for the three to get into the forest and for the story to start, I was really quite troubled by the bargain, and how the people were quite happy to accept it. I guess they don't know any different, as this is how it's always been, and they have an easy life, but I was really uncomfortable with how they were quite happy to sacrifice someone for them to not experience any hardship. To be a saint, to run through the Devil's Forest and possibly die, is an honour. The saints are practically heroes, and are considered role models to the younger children, and, if you're a boy, you grow up wanting to be a saint, wanting to be the best boy, and be the reason everyone you know and love continues to prosper. It just really freaked me out, because of the past twenty six saints to run, only five survived, and they were so traumatised by what they experienced in the forest, most of them couldn't stay in Three Graces, couldn't be near the forest, and leave. John Upjohn was the last saint, and survived, but he suffers from extreme PTSD, and is really not ok. All the other saints? They never came back out the forest. They are mourned, but they are celebrated, and the people are grateful for their sacrifice, for the easy life it gives them, and it is all just so messed up! It just felt quite sinister to me. Even more so because they're pretty much just normal people. It's not like in horror movies, where you have small towns full of crazy fanatics sacrificing people, these people are just ordinary folk, and this is just their way of life. It made for uncomfortable reading, but it also makes you think; is everything the town of Three Graces get in exchange for the sacrifice worth the possible death of a young man? No illness, quickly healing injuries, plenty of food, and so on?

They seem to think so. So when things start to go wrong, they all start freaking the hell out. A baby is born months early, a horse falls ill, and some crops are discovered with blight, and they know something is wrong. Something has happened to the bargain, because it is failing. And then the Slaughter Moon rises, four years before it's supposed to, and most just want to shove a saint in the forest to make everything better, without really asking what the hell is going on. Why has it failed? What has gone wrong? John Upjohn made it out of the forest alive three years ago, missing a hand - is it something to do with that? What is going on? So this is our story as Mairwen, a Grace witch whose family have been pivotal in the bargain for generations, tries to figure out what has gone wrong, Rhun prepares to run for the people and town he loves, and Arthur, who is ridiculed and outcast, wants to prove himself by running and surviving.

And then we get to the complex relationship dynamics of the story. Rhun, Mair and Arthur are all good friends. Rhun is just so good, he's selfless and joyful, and just sunbeams in human form. Although no labels are used, he's also bisexual, and polyamorous. He is in love with both Mair and Arthur. Mair is in love with him, knows he is also in love with Arthur, and has no problem with it. Arthur, however, is himself a very complex character. Until he was seven, he believed he was a girl, because that is how his mother brought him up. She believed to have a boy was to possibly have a dead son anyway, as he might have to become a saint, so she pretended he was a girl, Lyn, to try and keep him safe. But when swimming with the other children at seven, they all saw that Lyn has a penis, and he was outcast and ridiculed from then on, with a mother who decided to leave rather than possibly witness her son have to become a saint, and a father who disowned him. Since then, Arthur has been trying to prove he is a man, and feels becoming the saint, running in the Devil's Forest and surviving would prove it. But he's an angry young man, understandably, as well as an outcast, and so he is not the town's best boy. Still he feels the need to prove it. So although Rhun is his best friend, when Rhun kissed him three years previously, he freaked out. He is a boy, not a girl, so Rhun shouldn't be kissing him. He is very confused by his gender and all he thought to be true, and how he's trying to prove who is supposed to be, in his mind, and he's confused by how he feels for Rhun, too. He doesn't like Rhun getting close to him now, or touching him, and it's this huge thing that's between them, all the time. It's really heartbreaking to read, and this boy is in need of counselling for what his parents put him through, and how he's been treated since.

'It wasn't the girl's name or dresses that hurt Arthur. No, he was happy when they were all children. [Mairwen] remembers how hard Lyn Couch laughed. What hurt him was the rule change. Being forced out of girlhood into boyhood, as if it were only an either/or, as if to make any other choice was unnatural. He was so little when his world was dragged out from under him, it was no wonder he clung to the rules forever after.' (p319)

Arthur and Mair have their own love/hate relationship, and although I didn't really see it, are also in love with each other, too (though I didn't really see this until the end. I felt more they were friends who had issues with each other, but stuck together for the sake of Rhun, but were also attracted to each other). So there's this three-way polyamorous thing going on feelings wise, but not necessarily acted upon. I did have a little bit of an issue with how Rhun treats Mair, and maybe it's because I'm not polyamorous and so there are things I don't understand about it, but it was like, although Rhun is in love with Mair, he loves Arthur more, and so kind of holds back with her, because she's not Arthur, and it felt kind of crappy to me. But again, I don't know enough about polyamory, so it could just be me misunderstanding something. There are so few YA novels that feature polyamory that it's presence in Strange Grace is something to be excited about. Though I must say, I didn't really feel the romance side of things, because they're all in love with each other before the book started, so you don't really get to see it develop. It's just there. I also have to say I was more invested in the story and what was happening than I was in the characters themselves. Not that I didn't like them, I just didn't care about them as much as I did about what the hell was going on.

Strange Grace would make a fantastic movie. It's very visual, and would be very creepy and freak me the hell out as a movie, over what happens in the forest and after. Mate, it's really kind of epic, and very clever, and just really captures the imagination. It would be just brilliant as a movie! However, for what I read, it wasn't quite as creepy as I thought it should have been. Although the pace of the book really picked up in the last third, with a serious amount of what-the-hell pretty much throughout it, and the tension and a need for the answers that I knew were coming,  there was just something missing that stopped me from being as freaked out by it, in a horror sense, as I think I should have been. Despite the fact it gets quite dark and freaky, I just didn't feel it. It's still brilliant, I just think there was something lacking in the writing that created that creepy atmosphere, even though creepy things were happening. But as I said, it would make an incredible movie!

I would like to have known why there was a devil in the first place, though. No-one ever seemed to question the presence or existence of the devil in the forest. And nor are we told. We know the devil's purpose, but not why there needs to be a purpose, nor why this forest, and not any other in the world? We're just expected to accept that there is a devil, and that's it, without any explanation, which is a shame, really. I'd love some backstory on the devil before a bargain was ever made.

Overall, a pretty awesome story, one that's gripping and strange, and addictive. But it definitely could have been a little faster paced in the first half of the book. That's my only major issue, really. A really fantastic story!

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Published: 18th September 2018
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Tessa Gratton's Website

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