I’m so excited to be part of the blog tour for Malice, a fun fairytale-inspired fantasy that takes the well-known story of Sleeping Beauty and flips it on its head!
Book: Malice by Heather Walter
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Del Rey Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Physical and emotional abuse of child (described in past); homophobia.
Once upon a time, there was a wicked fairy who cursed a line of princesses to die, and could only be broken by true love’s kiss. You’ve heard this before, haven’t you? The handsome prince. The happily-ever-after.
Let me tell you, no one actually cares about what happens to our princesses. I thought I didn’t care, either. Until I met her.
Princess Aurora. The last heir to the throne. The future queen her realm needs. One who isn’t bothered that I am the Dark Grace, abhorred and feared for the mysterious dark magic that runs in my veins. Aurora says I should be proud of my gifts. That she . . . cares for me. Even though it was a power like mine that was responsible for her curse.
But with less than a year until that curse will kill her, any future I might see with Aurora is swiftly disintegrating – and she can’t stand to kiss yet another insipid prince. I want to help her. If my power began her curse, perhaps it’s what can lift it. Perhaps, together, we could forge a new world.
Nonsense again. Because we all know how this story ends, don’t we? Aurora is the beautiful princess. And I-
I am the villain.
If I have one thing to say about Malice, it’s that it’s a huge amount of fun. Treating this as a straightforward fairytale retelling is to do it a disservice – it’s a villain origin story, but it takes the bones of Sleeping Beauty and makes plenty of tweaks and changes that give the world a life of its own. I believe that this is being marketed as a crossover YA/adult fantasy, and both Alyce and Aurora are 20 years old, so a little older than the typical YA heroine, but this definitely has that classic YA vibe to me in both narration and plot. It’s part court fantasy, with balls and glamour hiding a mess of intrigue and danger, and part girl-discovers-her-magic, with a snarky outcast heroine learning she’s got a unique power – both of these are things I love, so I was very happy!
A lot of people who enjoy fairy tales have had to come to terms with the fact that a lot of them are very heteronormative, and I’ve seen a lot of attempts to subvert this in recent retellings and fairytale-inspired stories. I really loved the take that Malice offered on the traditional fairytale elements, which is pretty dark: Aurora, like all the other princesses of her bloodline, needs to receive her ‘true love’s kiss’ in order to survive her curse, but her parents go about this by forcing her to kiss hundreds of eligible bachelors, often publically. It’s humiliating for her and downright creepy to read, but it’s also extremely short-sighted, as Aurora discovers, because it actively rejects any possibility that a princess might have a non-male ‘true love’. Queer couples are totally accepted in the wider society, so this is a restriction purely placed on princesses for the begetting of heirs, and I liked the way the book addressed the issue of Aurora’s right to choose her own partner head-on. I love to see fairy tales getting queered, and though the romance itself wasn’t enough of the focus for me as a romance lover, I’m always here to see two strong, flawed women falling in love! I loved that it was sex-positive too – perhaps a bonus of not being quite wholly YA.
Elements of the Graces’ industry reminded me of The Belles, a YA favourite of mine, but even more sinister – the Graces live and work in geisha-esque houses, where they take appointments from clients to perform their Grace magic. I thought the glimpses into the way the Graces are commodified were fascinating – they’re put on pedestals and live luxurious charmed lives, but only so long as they’re performing well, and as with so many kinds of women’s work, their perceived value is linked inextricably to their youth and beauty. I found it clever that as well as Alyce’s overt hatred of the Grace system, so many characters who seemed to rejoice in it were clearly not as secure as they pretended – the Graces’ fascination with the league tables, and the way they always had half an eye on their looming retirement, made the setting feel very much like a gilded cage even as Alyce struggled with wanting to be a part of it.
I’m making this book sound very dark, but although it tackles some serious issues (I haven’t even got into the trauma Alyce has suffered, or that ending!), it honestly feels quite light-hearted. It’s very pacey, with lots of drama and beautiful set-pieces. There’s plenty of gorgeous ballgowns and cool magic training scenes, and I had an absolute whale of a time reading it – I tore through the whole book in one sitting because it was just so much fun! I mentioned The Belles before, and I think this would be perfect for fans of that series, with its mix of glamour and darkness, but I’d also recommend it to anyone who’s looking for smart new f/f court fantasy. I loved it, and I’m very excited to see how the duology wraps up – four and a half cats!