I wasn’t completely convinced with Cruel Beauty, Rosamund Hodge’s debut fairy tale retelling, but then I read her short spin-off Gilded Ashes and really quite liked it. In Crimson Bound, Hodge proves that she can write complicated characters with complicated relationships, as well as create her own mythology. There are still flaws in this book, but an author who gets better with every story is one I’m definitely willing to follow.
by Rosamund Hodge
Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2015
Hardcover: 448 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: “In all your life, your only choice,” Aunt Léonie said to her once, “is the path of needles or the path of pins.”
When Rachelle was fifteen, she was good—apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless—straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat.
Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in an effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand—the man she hates most—Rachelle forces Armand to help her hunt for the legendary sword that might save their world. Together, they navigate the opulent world of the courtly elite, where beauty and power reign and no one can be trusted. And as they become unexpected allies, they discover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic, and a love that may be their undoing. In a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night?
Among the myriad of fairy tale retellings aimed at young adults, it can be difficult to find something truly original, and it usually turns out that the retellings that stray quite a bit from the original fairy tale are the ones that stick in my mind long after reading. In this sort-of-retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” and a gender-swapped “The Girl With No Hands”, Rosamund Hodge, like her protagonist Rachelle, strays far from the path and creates something wonderful and fresh.
Rachelle lives with her Aunt Léonie and learns how to become the next Woodwife. But when, one day, she doesn’t stay on the path through the evil forest, she meets a forestborn and is promptly cursed by him. She must kill within three days or die. Cut to three years later – Rachelle did indeed kill within the given period of time and this murder haunts her every day of her cursed life. For now, she is a bloodbound – destined to become a forestborn herself but, until then, granted amazing strength. Bloodbound are used as a sort of bodyguard/police force that keeps out evil spirits from the forest. There’s a whole system that I won’t go into right now but that is a lot of fun to discover. It reminded me, in many ways, of Katsa from Kristin Cashore’s Graceling – a girl who, because of her powers, is used more like a weapon than a person, a girl with a million self-doubts, a pure survivor.
Rachelle is an intriguing character not just because of her past and the moment that formed her personality, but also because of her relationships. Erec, another bloodbound and her partner and friend, is just as interesting – if difficult – as Rachelle. Amélie, Rachelle’s only other friend, made for a beautiful counterpart. Where Rachelle is gloomy and pessimistic, Amélie sees the good in people (even bloodbound) and doesn’t judge easily. Although Amélie doesn’t get a lot of spotlight, she is a believable character in her own right and I loved the friendship between these two girls.
As she feels the forest tugging at her, and with the threat of the Endless Night, Rachelle plans to go hunting for a famed mythological sword that can slay the Devourer, the dark evil that controls the forest and its forestborn.
And then there’s Armand, the king’s bastard son, who lost his two hands defying a forestborn. A whole religion is rising up around this brave young man who sacrificed so much to avoid spilling innocent blood. Rachelle hates him deeply, so the story gets all the more intersting when she is charged with protecting him with her life. But Armand turns out to be more than a lying prince with no hands and destroys Rachelle’s prejudices every chance he gets. Their relationship was a lovely thing to read about, especially because Rosamund Hodge finally managed to get away from her insta-love problem. One could interpret Rachelle, Erec, and Armand as a love triangle, although I personally wouldn’t because Rachelle’s relationship to Erec is so complex and difficult that it doesn’t fit into the annoying two-boys-love-one-girl trope we see so often in YA fiction. If you do consider this a love triangle, well, then that’s the kind I like to read about.
Now I’ve talked a lot about the characters and there’s still so much more to this book. Hodge created her own mythology on which the entire kingdom is based. Religion features heavily in this story, as does the question of guilt and redemption. The myth of Zisa and Tyr would have made a great story all by itself, but as a background tale to a court intrigue/fairy tale, it was even better. The one thing that did surprise me was how, at the same time, this book is a quiet, sometimes slow-moving character story, yet there is so much going on. Hodge focused quite a bit on world-building without long exposition or info-dumping. She put great detail into her characters, the villains, protagonists, and side characters alike. But she also created a religion, a fully functioning royal court, and a class system. Not every part of this society has received the same love for detail but the atmosphere permeating the book more than makes up for that. I am quite impressed!
The ending, similarly to Cruel Beauty was a bit of a rushed mess but I still liked it. I suspect that whether you will like it to depends entirely on taste. Although it has very little in common with “Little Red Riding Hood”, Crimson Bound is a great story based on a fairy tale. I can’t wait to see what Rosamund Hodge does next. I see there’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet planned for publication in September, titled Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. A new take on Shakespeare by Rosamund Hodge sounds like just the thing. I’ll be sure to pick it up.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good