It’s so easy to make things harder for ourselves by focusing on the way we think things should be, rather than the way things really are. Here are two stories (Paladin’s Grace for adults, Iron Hearted Violet for kids) about characters learning to find their own strengths and appreciate the beauty of life just as it is.
Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher. Argyll Productions, 2020. ISBN 978-1614505211. Read on Libby.
T. Kingfisher is the pen name Ursula Vernon uses when she writes for adults. Though I adore her Hamster Princess books and also Castle Hangnail, I had never read any of her adult books. But this pandemic is making me a little more open to reading books I can only get easily in ebook format, and I’m so glad I found this one!
Stephen is a former paladin for the Saint of Steel in a world where gods are real, as are the powers they can give their followers. When his god died three years ago, it left him feeling literally gutted, purposeless – and also terrified that the berserking skills the god made sure were only ever used for good will rise unbidden, making him run amok. Now, though he struggles to get out of bed every day, he has a stable job at the Temple of the Rat, helping with their work on behalf of the downtrodden, still leaving him plenty of time to knit warm socks for those he cares about.
Grace is a perfumer with the skills of a master and the papers of an apprentice. She fled her former city less than three years ago, renting a shop from a spy named Marguerite, who is also now her best friend. Though she worked up the courage to leave her scumbag husband and walk for weeks with just herself and her pet civette, she still mostly believes that she’s as worthless as he told her she was and definitely doesn’t believe that she’ll be able to keep the life she’s built up for herself.
Neither of them is looking for romance.
This is a romance. But the author being who she is, it’s also full of lots of humor and kindness, as well as trying to solve the mystery of why decapitated heads are being found around the city, what sinister motive the priests of the Hanged Mother have, as well as some unpleasant politics around a visiting prince. Those who shy away from romances for fear of an overdose of sweetness will not find that here. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how much I enjoyed this seeing as how this was recommended by both the Book Smugglers and Stephanie Burgis, two sources I trust. Now I need to read more of T. Kingfisher’s work…
Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill. Read by Simon Vance. Hachette Audio, 2012. ASIN B009NOT9HE; Paperback from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2014. ISBN 978-0316056755. Listened on Libby.
Kelly Barnhill is another author I’ve enjoyed in the past (see The Girl Who Drank the Moon and The Witch’s Boy.) This book is older, but my library just purchased the audiobook, which I popped on hold as soon as I saw it.
Violet is an ugly princess: too skinny, with mismatched eyes, shortish, flyaway hair, and patchy skin. She’s known for running away to the castle’s storyteller, who without thinking one day, scolds her for making the princess in a story she’s telling look like her. “Real princesses are beautiful.” And so Violet begins to doubt herself. As she and her best friend Demetrius explore the ever-changing passages of the castle, they find a secret room, with a book that calls to her, saying it can grant her wishes, Violet is inclined to listen… But when she asks about the strange painting she found in the room, she is told not to speak the name or look for more information… that name has been forgotten on purpose.
Meanwhile, her father is researching dragons. They were rumored to have been enslaved by the Nameless God, who stole their hearts to control them and brought them to their world. No one has seen them in centuries, but the king hopes to find them and restore them to their ancient glory.
Both of these quests lead to danger, both for Violet and her father, and their world as a whole. For the Nameless God has been imprisoned for centuries, and has been waiting for a chance to get out.
This is a much darker living castle than the castle in Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle, with more complicated characters and interweaving plot lines. I could see it appealing to older kids who read that book as younger children, and certainly to kids and up who enjoy stories of girls breaking stereotypes, making mistakes, and picking up the pieces again. Because Violet may not be the princess she thinks her people want, but she is the princess they need, and watching her discover that is glorious.
I love everything T. Kingfisher writes! (Though I probably won’t reread Twisted Things, because it’s really good horror, and I don’t do horror!) You’ll like Swordheart, too: it has a similar lovely romance between two normal, flawed people. (Well, for a definition of normal that includes being turned into a sword …) And the Clocktaur Wars duology is set in the same world and is side-splittingly funny.
I like your point about characters not necessarily changing the world; just learning to live successfully within it. It’s a different paradigm for fantasy, and I like it.
Thanks, Kim! I think I’d been thinking that all of T. Kingfisher’s stuff was horror – but no! I just bought Bryony and Roses with a libro.fm credit – I’m excited to listen to it!
Wow, I will definitely need to check out Iron Hearted Violet. I love the sound of the living castle, the involvement of Violet’s father, and dragons! I have only read Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon (which I love). I actually own a copy of The Witch’s Boy that I really should get to this year…
Thanks, Jenna! I’d love to hear what you think of both the Witch’s Boy and Iron Hearted Violet when you get to them!
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