by Heather WalterMalice is another take on the Briar Rose fairy tale, with a lesbian twist. In the queendom of Briar, the princesses are cursed to die unless they get true love's kiss before the age of 21. Meanwhile, a cohort of women known as Graces are talented in magic: beauty, charm, wit, grace, and more. They are well paid and are charged with making potions from drops of their own blood in order to satisfy the nobles, and they must keep within strict Grace Laws until their magic Fades, after which their hair turns grey and they are looked after by the state.
Then there's Alyce, the Dark Grace. She's not like the other women. Not really a Grace, she is only able to do wicked magic and curses, so she is treated like a pariah by the other Graces and the nobles, she isn't invited to prestigious parties, and she isn't treated very well. She's often insulted, and many fear her. Living in an untidy and dingy lair rather than the attractive rooms of the other Graces, she is set apart. A friendly herb supplier and the wisdom Grace, Laurel, are the only people who show Alyce any kindness, but because she isn't close to either of them she feels shunned and friendless, and her greatest desire is to escape the stifling confines of her life in Briar.
That holds true until she is summoned to an evening at the palace, one that is ripe with disastrous humiliation for Alyce, who isn't normally invited to such events. But it brings her to the notice of Princess Aurora. Continuing on a theme, Aurora isn't like other princesses. She has ideas about how to change the queendom for the better, she has little patience for the vanity and the triviality of court, and she sees something in Alyce that others don't.
The world-building in Malice is remarkable, and so is the plotting. There is a history of intrigue between the queendom of Briar with its cursed heirs and magical Graces, the magical Fae lands of Etheria, the unmagical human lands surrounding them, and the exterminated Vila race. The society of Briar is sharply divided by class, as well as being notably homophobic, and this is all entangled in historical wrongs that are challenging for everyone involved to put right, let alone atone for. Many characters are trapped in their roles, their freedom to act constrained by the world they inhabit in ways that aren't obvious at first.
Heather Walter proves to be talented at misdirection, as what begins as a certain type of story takes many twists. We think we know the Briar Rose story, and many of the motifs are retained in this retelling. Alyce begins by thinking of herself as cowardly above all, and as relatively powerless. The court is Machiavellian, with manipulation and betrayal a part of its basic grammar. Chances of redemption and happily-ever-after are teased throughout the story, but it's not at all clear who deserves one.
Malice is a good length, long enough to pull the rug out from under the reader a few times. It's meaty. The main character is meant to be a villain, at least in the eyes of Briar society at large, and in the context of the fairy tale it's based around. But Alyce is always very engaging, interesting, and relatable, making it easy to downplay her flaws and root for her success. The same is true for many of the other characters, so that we're encouraged to empathise with them from lots of different angles. Even Rose, the vain, shallow and spiteful beauty Grace in the earlier chapters, matures into a considerably more rounded and sympathetic figure by the end.
This first instalment of the Malice duology positively glows. I can't wait to pick up the sequel.
5th September 2023
Review © Ros Jackson
Source: own copy