Rosamund Hodge – Crimson Bound

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.

crimson boundCRIMSON BOUND
by Rosamund Hodge

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2015
Hardcover: 448 pages
Standalone
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?

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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.

crimson bound detail

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

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Second opinions:

Sarah Pinborough – Beauty

Goodbye, fairy tale retellings. Hello, crazy meltingpot of awesome! Ostentatiously, this is Sarah Pinborough’s take on Sleeping Beauty, but in actuality it’s  a mix of all sorts of fairytales. Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, and Rapunzel are just the ones I picked up on. Still, I can’t complain. My lust for fairy tales has been satisfied and I am ready to move on to space ships again.

beauty pinboroughBEAUTY
by Sarah Pinborough

Published by: Gollancz, 2013
Hardcover: 208 pages
Series: Tales from the Kingdoms #3
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: It was a warm spring and the king and queen took their breakfast on the balcomy outside their private apartments, enjoying the fresh air without the burden of any sort of protocol.

Beauty is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story which takes all the elements of the classic fairytale that we love (the handsome prince, the ancient curse, the sleeping girl and, of course, the haunting castle) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. It’s fun, contemporary, sexy, and perfect for fans of ONCE UPON A TIME, GRIMM, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and more.

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Dear book blurb writers. Now hold on just a second! Comparing Pinborough’s books to Once Upon a Time or – worse! – Snow White and the Huntsman (yeah, I tortured myself with that shit) is a huge insult. Once Upon A Time is fluffy and silly and caters to the Disney-generation for season one, then turns to crap in season two. Snow White and the Huntsman, apart from the atrocious acting on the part of whatsherface-twilight-girl, is a badly-told, boring story that has next to nothing in common with the original. There. Rant over.

In Pinborough’s version of Sleeping Beauty, we return to that despicable prince from the previous two books but we also travel back in time (see, I don’t even need a TARDIS to do it). Before he fell in love with the poisoned Snow White, the prince was restless and his parents decided he needed an adventure. Legends from the neighbouring kingdom have reached the palace. The capital is surrounded completely by a dense forest and nobody has entered the city in almost a hundred years. So prince and huntsman/bodyguard trek over to said kingdom and pick up a girl in a red cloak on the way. Petra just wanted to bring some food to her granny’s house, but secretly, she is entranced by the howling of the wolves that roam the forest nearby.

Long story short, the trio arrives at the citybeauty2, everybody’s asleep, the prince kisses Beauty and off we go. This is where it starts getting awesome. Because as familiar as the set-up sounds, the curse, the kingdom, Beauty herself, and the reasons for her enchantment are nothing like what you’d expect. The first two books were pretty sexy, this one adds a layer of creepiness to it all. There is one scene in particular that includes quite graphic descriptions of an orgy. I read this on a train ride and never have I been so grateful that people don’t know what it is I’m consuming when I read. All they see is a girl reading a book.

As much as I still love Pinborough’s portrayal of characters, her language and ideas, I do have some gripes with number 3 in the Tales from the Kingdoms. I enjoy messed-up fairy tales and crossovers, but there was really no reason for Red Riding Hood or the wolf to show up. They didn’t add to the story, they felt stuck in for the sake of another fairy tale. Rumpelstilstkin was a nice addition and he fits so neatly into this story, I’m surprised nobody else has come up with it yet. Sarah Pinborough also sets up some ideas for future novellas in the series (Fingers crossed! I definitely want more.). But for a 200-page book, it dragged along a bit, especially in the beginning. There were frequent shifts in perspective between the huntsman (sigh), the prince (ugh), and Petra (Red Riding Hood). For such a short story, one POV character or two are really enough.

So this was my least favorite in the series but still one of the better retellings I’ve read. See? It’s so simple. Don’t make your fairy tale retellings into mushy, tame, YA romances. Take all the darkness and the grit and the sex and the blood from actual fairy tales, put a feminist spin on them, make the lovely prince a bumbling idiot, and you have a fantastic modern fairy story.

If the author does decide to write more stories in the same vein, sign me up. After all, we still haven’t read about Rapunzel or the Goose Girl or – gasp – Bluebeard! I’ll read a Sarah Pinborough Bluebeard any day.

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