A princess isn’t supposed to fall for an evil sorceress. But in this darkly magical retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” true love is more than a simple fairy tale.
Once upon a time, there was a wicked fairy who, in an act of vengeance, cursed a line of princesses to die. A curse that 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 in Briar actually cares about what happens to its princesses. Not the way they care about their jewels and elaborate parties and charm-granting elixirs. I thought I didn’t care, either.
Until I met her.
Princess Aurora. The last heir to Briar’s throne. Kind. Gracious. The future queen her realm needs. One who isn’t bothered that I am Alyce, the Dark Grace, abhorred and feared for the mysterious dark magic that runs in my veins. Humiliated and shamed by the same nobles who pay me to bottle hexes and then brand me a monster. 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.
Because we all know how this story ends, don’t we? Aurora is the beautiful princess. And I—
I am the villain.
Trigger Warnings: cutting, blood, suicidal suggestions, violence, prejudice, homophobia, parental/guardian abuse
Del Rey sent me an ARC via Netgalley. This does not impact my opinion of the book.
There’s a point in Malice that I had to look at myself in the mirror and realize as much as I wanted to enjoy a book almost seemingly explicitly curated for me, it’s just a lousy date situation. Any book pitched as ‘villains but sapphic’ sounded entertaining and freeing from publishing’s overwhelming expectation that women, and Queer people, fit into a place absent of messy behavior and character development. What I got, however, turned out to be more of a purely innocent and stereotypical story.
Inspired by the likes of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Heather Walter’s gaze veers towards the twisted and sinister seduction of Maleficient. With Fae Courts and magical beings called The Graces, wishes are given by spilling blood in lieu of a wand. A human kingdom of both mortality and magic, gifts of the Fae but with the greed of mortals, Briar is a matriarchy gone wrong. The first warrior queen’s descendants granted their mortal husbands more power as the years passed. Transferring power led to more greed, militarism, and corruption in Briar. Aurora, the last daughter of the Briar Queen, must kiss her true love to break the curse, or she will die, and so will the last of the Briar queens.
Reviled and hated for her evil spells and her even more sinister heritage, she’s known as Alyce or by her nickname Malyce. Alice’s ancestors hail from Malterre, the land of Vila. A mysterious land of powerful but dark faerie beings.
Alyce spends her days conjuring dark magic for the nobility of Briar, unlike her graceful house companions and their wish fulfillments for beauty. She hopes for freedom, an escape from the abuse. With no mother of her own, the kingdom placed her in a home, one that demands Alyce pay for her place by performing dark magic for their customers. For Alyce, this place is bliss after the body experimentations and abuse she suffered at the hands of a vicious man trying to discover her otherly nature. Her hope for an escape looks more evident than before. And then Alyce meets Aurora.
Aurora is more of a political take-down-the-system kind of gay princess albeit blissfully ignorant about her privilege compared to raven-haired Alyce. Wanting a political fantasy of two gay girls is a dream of mine. Now, I have to talk about the part where it’s more a thin layer of ideas than an all-consuming world of complex politics, where issues like blood purity, strict class systems, and power feel more like something casually inserted.
Things like blood purity, class systems, and corrupt power involve very complicated histories from many societies, and they are such faceted and multi-layered subjects that include deep dives into history and politics. In this book, the assumption is that blood purity, and all the politics revolving around that is simply something to explain by the color of blood rather than something that people, like the English or Spanish, came up with to dominate and assert power over people. Some things in our world are invented and manipulated by corrupt systems of power, and Walter does some work but doesn’t go the whole way to build her world’s current political system with detail and nuance. In that regard, I found it a very old fashioned idea that does little to critique something built into our own world’s history.
When I see authors dealing with such heavy subjects, I need to visualize the work. In The Unbroken, C.L. Clark builds the prejudice-based politics in their world by showing me, largely through intricate and detailed character work, rather than inserting a very simplistic backstory. I don’t expect every book to be the same. An author giving me complicated issues and only giving broad sweeping stereotypical ideas but then focusing on other aspects of the story makes it difficult for me to enjoy that story. Nothing here feels organic or seemless and so everything ends up clunky.
I want to have fun with romance and politics in the fantasy I read. I’m very interested in the politics of this world that I live and breathe in, and therefore I want to see that rally and that cry against corrupt systems with the same level of complexity. I need that sweet build-up in politics, in romance, in characterization. I can then feel the attention to detail and see such care for creating a sentence, a description, a character.
I want to sink into that world as if I can touch it and feel it, and hopefully cry about it.
A simmering chemistry-full romantic plotline did not develop as I had hoped. I wanted to love one relationship in the book, and I hoped for a slow, agonizing, and borderline ferocious sapphic romance between Aurora and Alyce. As a Queer reader, I’ve been desperate for publishing to boost adult sapphic fantasy with a bite. Malice sounded exactly like that, but obviously, it hasn’t worked out according to plan.
I could tell that Walter wanted me to feel the tension in her book, but the problem is that she did not put in the build to that possible tension. A lot of developmental gaps are apparent. There’s a difference between being told something and going through something where you are agonizing with them, the character chemistry so raw and real, wrung out so much that you’re screaming ‘just kiss!’
If it’s not the severe lack of moments between Aurora and Alyce, it’s the way the moments with each other never take time to pause, slow down, and reflect on the emotions between characters. The same also goes for any romantic moments. The prose itself is often crucial to creating tension. With prose so strikingly abrupt and awkward in its delivery, I found my interests were waning in the characters and their lackluster relationship.
What could have been some very smoldering tension between a villain and a princess started to look more like a cinderella story, almost not at all what I had expected. Alyce and Aurora feel very ‘the bully’s victim’ and ‘the princess that saves her’ rather than a sapphic villain fantasy. That turn of expectation, I suspect, does a lot to squish all the interesting bits of the story.
What’s more interesting is the survivor-hood of villains and their struggle with ethics. If I had gotten more characterization, I could see this working. There was such little done with the intimacy between me as a reader and Alyce’s intricacies that I couldn’t summon any interest for her or her relationship with Aurora.
The one thing that hurts most of all is that I didn’t feel any joy or interest in Malice.