Look, there are lot of YA fantasies out there right now. Personally, I’m not complaining—send me your Chosen One warriors, your long-lost princesses working to reclaim their family thrones, your magical coming-of-age tales, I’ll read them all and most likely love every page. There’s just something perfect about this particular subgenre, largely because it’s got space for every kind of story and takes all comers—from fairytale retellings to, magical dystopias and everything in between.
And, perhaps most importantly, YA fantasy isn’t afraid to tell love stories of all stripes, crafting romantic and emotional stakes that feel as sweeping and epic as any battle for a kingdom. It’s a potent emotional mix is what I’m saying, particularly when so much of traditional mainstream fantasy is still loathe to dip its proverbial toes into serious relationship waters. It’s likely why the genre is more popular now than it’s ever been.
Author Emily Thiede’s debut novel This Vicious Grace ticks a lot of familiar boxes: A divinely blessed heroine has tremendous power but is essentially cursed to carry it alone (literally, she’ll kill anyone she touches). She must help save her homeland from a ritualistic invasion of demonic forces. She falls in love with a man who comes from the same subgroup she’s been taught all her life was not just an enemy but evil. And she’ll have to figure out who she really is along the way. Yet, Thiede’s story manages to mix all these elements together into a near-perfect blend of fantasy romance magic, one that will leave readers both thoroughly satisfied and eager for a sequel.
Set on the island of Saverio, This Vicious Grace follows the story of Alessa, chosen by the goddess Dea to stand against the demon hordes the evil god Crollo will send forth to try and destroy humanity. As a Finestra, her powerful ability to amplify magic is meant to be paired with a Fonte, a person blessed with offensive abilities such as the power to control the elements or manipulate matter. These divine saviors will stand against the monsters during a generational calamity known as the Divorando, and the fate of their island is in their hands.
Alessa, Saverio’s newest Finestra, is struggling to learn how to control her powerful gift. She’s chosen and wed three Fontes to date, all of which have died at her hands and her people are beginning to lose faith in her. Worse, she’s beginning to lose faith in herself. She longs for community and connection, for something as simple as a hug, but with everyone afraid of the power of death in her touch and her family forbidden from acknowledging the daughter they once knew, Alessa is lonely, ostracized, and scared.
When a rebellious preacher begins to incite violence against her, insisting that Alessa’s failures to find a partner are evidence she has secretly been sent by Crollo to ensure humanity’s destruction, she hires Dante, a brawler and possible murderer from the city’s lower classes to serve as her bodyguard. She doesn’t expect that Dante will turn out to be exactly what she needs in order to not only control her power but accept herself for who she is.
As the two inevitably grow closer, sparks fly, but Thiede is careful to ground their growing bond in something more than insta-attraction. Yes, their chemistry is electric, but the novel is just as interested in exploring their similarities as two lonely people who feel forever separated from those around them as a result of things they can’t control. Dante has more than his fair share of issues of his own and is hiding the sort of dark secret that could very well ruin everything they’re working toward, but the deft way their romance unfolds makes it almost impossible not to root for these two crazy kids to work it out.
Refreshingly, there’s also no love triangle to speak of in this story. Because Dante is not a Fonte, there are a half dozen other supporting characters vying to be Alessa’s divine partner at the potential end of the world. But their preordained roles don’t automatically convey a romantic attachment, and Thiede smartly uses the competition between the Fontes to not only introduce a variety of compelling secondary figures, but to further underline how desperately Alessa longs for human connections and for a sense of belonging in a world that’s eager to idolize her but is deeply uninterested in knowing her true self.
And as fantasy heroines go, Alessa is a standout: Clever, capable, and deeply loyal to both those she cares about and the city that she calls home, she nevertheless questions her life and whether she’s worthy of the divine duty that’s been pressed upon her, wondering whether Savario might be better off without her. Her slow discovery and acceptance of her own worth—and that the things others might most frequently criticize about her are her greatest strength —is a delight to watch unfold. It’s not a surprise that Alessa eventually grows into the hero she was called to be, but the arc of her emotional journey is especially satisfying to watch unfold.
A lush setting sprinkled with an irresistible Italian flavor and worldbuilding that hints at much more historical and political depth than we’re allowed to see on the page, This Vicious Grace is effortlessly romantic, thrillingly immersive, and more than worth your time this summer.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.