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:

Rosamund Hodge – Gilded Ashes

There were ideas I loved in Rosamund Hodge’s debut Cruel Beauty, and there were some things that really bothered me. But I saw potential in Hodge as a writer, especially as one who puts spins on fairy tales. This novella set in the same universe as Cruel Beauty may have suffered from some insta-love, but otherwise it did everything right. Consider me impressed.

gilded ashesGILDED ASHES
by Rosamund Hodge

Published by: Harper Teen, 2014
Ebook: 111 pages
Series: Cruel Beauty Universe
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: My mother loved me more than life itself.

A romantic and fantastical reimagining of the classic Cinderella tale, Gilded Ashes is a novella by Rosamund Hodge set in the same world as the author’s debut novel, Cruel Beauty.
Orphan Maia doesn’t see the point of love when it only brings pain: Her dying mother made a bargain with the evil, all-powerful ruler of their world that anyone who hurt her beloved daughter would be punished; her new stepmother went mad with grief when Maia’s father died; and her stepsisters are desperate for their mother’s approval, yet she always spurns them. And though her family has turned her into a despised servant, Maia must always pretend to be happy, or else they’ll all be struck dead by the curse.
Anax, heir to the Duke of Sardis, doesn’t believe in love either—not since he discovered that his childhood sweetheart was only using him for his noble title. What’s the point of pretending to fall in love with a girl just so she’ll pretend to fall in love with him back? But when his father invites all the suitable girls in the kingdom to a masked ball, Anax must finally give in and select a wife.
As fate would have it, the preparations for the masquerade bring him Maia, who was asked by her eldest stepsister to deliver letters to Anax. Despite a prickly first encounter, he is charmed and intrigued by this mysterious girl who doesn’t believe in love. Anax can’t help wishing to see her again—and when he does, he can’t help falling in love with her. Against her will, Maia starts to fall in love with him too. But how can she be with him when every moment his life is in danger from her mother’s deadly bargain?

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Maia lives with her stepmother and two stepsisters and has to do all the chores, all the housework, and is basically be a slave to her family’s whims. So far, so Cinderella. But Hodge puts the first twist on the story right at the start. Maia’s mother loved her daughter so much that her ghost remains and protects Maia from demons, from humans who wish her harm, from everything – and sometimes that protection gets a little out of hand. So Maia lives with a mask on her face, constantly pretending to be happy so her mother’s ghost doesn’t hurt anyone around her. For if her mother’s ghost believes a person makes Maia unhappy,

When Lord Anax announces a masked ball where he will choose his bride, Maia has to deliver her sister Koré’s letters to him. Koré hopes to snare the lord and bring her family fortune and safety. Through chance, Maia and Anax meet in person and begin talking. I loved these first scenes between the two. Their reasons for eventually falling in love become believable in those first meetings. They disagree, they astound each other, Maia can be honest for the first time in ages. Lord Anax is used to being flattered, being lied to, being humored. When Maia – having nothing to lose and not daring to want anything for herself – speaks the truth, even when this means telling him he is not very good at something, he is intrigued. Maia’s attraction to Anax grows more slowly, but this romance is really not the heart of the story.

gilded ashes

This novella is set in the same world as Cruel Beauty and so demons are a thing, the Gentle Lord bargains with humans, and all of those bargains usually end up doing more harm than good – in excellent fairy tale fashion. The world building is a constant companion throughout the story and I really liked the idea of bargains made for love being responsible for Maia’s family breaking. And that is the center of Gilded Ashes – Maia learning who her sisters are, why her stepmother is the way she is, that both Koré and her younger sister Thea aren’t just stupid girls out for the Lord’s money or power. All they want – all anyone wants in this book – is to be loved. The way they are trying to achieve this differs from person to person, but in essence, all they desire is love. Which makes it really difficult to dislike them, you know. How can you fault somebody for wanting to be loved by their own mother? By their stepsister? To be so starved for affection that even a perfect stranger’s love is desirable?

The moment I truly fell in love with this tale was when Maia and Koré BECOME FRIENDS! Cinderella is not the kind of story, even if retold with a twist, in which you’d expect to find female friendship. But as these characters grow, as they dare show their true selves, they also have to recognise that they don’t hate each other. Not only that, but that they genuinely care for each other. It was a thing of beauty that I liked much more than the romance between Maia and Anax.

The ending offered some twists, one of which was expected but not in any way lessened by being slightly predictable. The others were genuinely surprising. I don’t know if you can call it a happy end exactly, but it was a fitting one that leaves the readers with hope.

Altogether, this was an enjoyable little novella, set in an intriguing universe based on Greek mythology (yay!) that I preferred to its novel companion. If Rosamund Hodge continues to get better with every book she writes, I already look forward to her second novel Crimson Bound and anything else she’ll publish after that.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

FTF Book Review: Rosamund Hodge – Cruel Beauty

It’s Fairy Tale Frenzy, everyone! Who would have thought my faith in fairy tale retellings could be restored so easily? A few years ago, I had a very bad hand at grabbing books written for young adults, but I seem to have gotten over that streak of bad luck. For FTF, my first two books have both been really good.

cruel beautyCRUEL BEAUTY
by Rosamund Hodge

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2014
Ebook:
352 pages
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

First sentence: I was raised to marry a monster.

divider1Fairy Tales Retold

  • Beauty and the Beast
  • a hint of Pandora and other Greek myths

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Synopsis

Graceling meets Beauty and the Beast in this sweeping fantasy about one girl’s journey to fulfill her destiny and the monster who gets in her way-by stealing her heart.

Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.
Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom – all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him. With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she’s ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.
But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle – a shifting maze of magical rooms – enthralls her. As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex’s secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.

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Review

Oh, this started out so well. Nyx dreads the day that she will be married off to the Gentle Lord, the demon in the crumbling castle on the hill, a tyrant who has kept her entire people locked up under a parchment dome, their world cut off from the rest of the universe. Heavily based on Greek mythology, with some added magic – Hermetic sigils – a group of people have made a plan to kill the Gentle Lord, and Nyx is front and center of that plan.

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I loved the atmosphere of this novel. It starts out quite dark, with Nyx questioning herself and her sacrifice, and with her very human feelings of jealousy towards her sister. Despite loving Astraia dearly, Nyx can’t help but feel treated unfairly for having pulled this lot instead of her sister’s comfortable future. Our heroine is, in general, a swirling mix of emotions, and not all of them a good. In that, she stands out from fairy tale princesses, because unlike the all-good, all-pure girls who usually save princes, Nyx is utterly human. She wants to do good, of course, but she also has moments of cruelty, with no ulterior motive other than enjoying a little bit of revenge. It made for a complex character that I loved to follow through the scary castle.

And then the romance happened. This sounds like I’m somehow opposed to her falling in love – I am absolutely not. I was on the edge of my seat during the moments between Nyx and Ignifex because I never knew whether they were going to kill or kiss each other. Their conversations weren’t particularly clever, but there was an underlying threat of danger and a ton of unresolved sexual tension. So the story pushed some of my very favorite buttons.

Unfortunately, it all goes up in flames of cheesiness and lazy writing. Like Sunday in Enchanted, it doesn’t take Nyx very long to fall in deep, deep love with not only Ignifex, but also his shadow, Shade. Despite being a fairy tale retelling (and “true love” happening even faster in actual fairy tales, and with even less of a basis), it still bothered me. Can’t literary heroines admit that they have a crush, that they feel slightly tingly when he enters the room, that they may have fallen in lust? No, it’s always true love, right away, from the second or third kiss onward.

Which leads me to where the writing started becoming lazy. There are a lot of kisses in Cruel Beauty, and while the first few ones – plus the ones that were important for plot-reasons – were well-described and butterfly-worthy, after a certain point, the author seemed to just have given up. Suddenly, all we get is “and then they kissed” or “suddenly he kissed me”. A throwaway line here and there to make sure we know that Nyx and Shade or Ignifex are still a thing.

The main story arc, however, doesn’t merely revolve around a romance/love-triangle. Nyx is trying to save the world! And the Gentle Lord’s castle is as much a mystery as the question how to destroy him. Killing her husband after actually falling in love with him presents an added difficulty, to say the least. But Ignifex is wrapped in secrets within secrets, and I kept reading as much to find out these secrets as for the resolution of the romance.

It’s a clever twist on Greek mythology, but I was still somewhat disappointed in the ending. Not only are the secrets revealed with a lot of exposition, the solution comes too easily after a lot of useless work. What’s more, Nyx worked the entire time to figure out the riddle that is Ignifex and his castle, and in the end has to be told everything anyway. She is presented as a clever, active young woman with a capacity for independent thought and yet, everything she does learn comes from someone else. Shade reveals things, birds reveal things, other beings give her hints and – in the end – straight up tell her the solution via convenient vision. All she had to do was walk around the house a lot. No thinking involved. Which makes me sad because I’m sure, if given the chance (by the author, that is), Nyx could have easily figured it out for herself. That requires careful planning and foreshadowing of course, and that’s the area the author still has to work on.

There were parts of this book that I loved. The imagery is gorgeous and would make a stunning movie, animation, illustrated novel, what-have-you. The background of Nyx’s world, how Greek mythology and the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale intermingle, works beautifully. But then there were the parts I hated. Not just disliked, hated. Nyx’s fickleness, her way to trust people much too easily, especially for someone who grew up the way she did. The writing that grew lazy towards the end, the big solution and wannabe-plot twist. It’s difficult to decide yay or nay with this book.

But for its originality and the darkness of its tone, I lean just slightly towards a positive opinion. Seeing as this is Rosamund Hodge’s debut novel, I am curious to find out how she does in her next one. There is a lot of potential for greatness and I wouldn’t want to miss it. Especially since the next book will be a spin on Little Red Riding Hood.

RATING:  6/10  –  Good

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Books by Rosamund Hodge:

  • Cruel Beautygilded ashes
  • Gilded Ashes (a companion novella set in the same world that retells “Cinderella”)