Standalone, Balzer+Bray, 2015, 436 pgs.
In the days of old, the Devourer ruled the world, hunting humans in the darkness before Tyr and Zisa stole the sun and moon from him and bound him in his own realm. Not that things are perfectly safe now; The Forest, the dark world that lurks just behind our reality is still there. And the Devourer may be bound, but his servants, the forestborn, still hide in the shadows, waiting to tempt those who would stray off the path and mark them as bloodbound, cursed creatures who must kill to survive and who will eventually lose their human hearts to become forestborn themselves. Rachelle should know, she was trained to protect against them before she became one of them. Now, instead of weaving charms to ward them off, she fights for the king as a bloodbound herself, using her preternatural strength and speed to atone for her crimes in any way she can. Because the Forest is becoming stronger, the forestborn becoming more active, and signs are saying that the Devourer is about to reawaken. And, however much she has given herself to the darkness, Rachelle has still never lost the idealistic girl who deliberately stepped off the path, looking for the information needed to destroy him completely.
I love a good fairytale retelling; I know I’ve said that before when talking about “stories about stories,” but really, there are multiple ways a story about stories can go. A well-done fairytale retelling has a charm all its own, and seeing what an author chooses to keep or change from a particular tale can lead to endless analysis on endless variations.
What can I say? I like thinking about story evolution, and that urge is especially satisfied in a novel where the author is pulling from about five different tales, using and reworking some fairytale ideas that I’ve never even seen brought up in current novels, and mixing in some modern genre tropes to create something that has some of the most nicely layered lore that I’ve ever seen.
And while all that sounds spectacular, I’m going to be frank here and say outright that this only gave me about half of what I was looking for from it. I picked the novel up initially because I’d read a short story by the author and was hoping something long-form could capture the same amount of poetry and drive that did.
Which Crimson Bound does, to a certain extent. The book is split between the main story of our heroine, Rachelle, and little snippets of the world’s backstory with Tyr and Zisa. Those backstory pieces are everything I wanted here: dreamy and fable-like and timeless. The ending of each one felt like a punch to the gut, as each bit of information revealed forced you to reevaluate what was happening and who this world’s heroes really were.
The writing on the bulk of the main plot is a little more prosaic, unfortunately. It’s not bad at all, but in a novel that I picked up for the writing style, the back and forth between the two was a little galling.
The plot, too, plays into some YA tropes that I’m not that fond of. I could have done without the love triangle, even if this one was far less annoying than they usually are, and after the first couple of chapters Rachelle changes from a reckless girl who wants to be a hero, which is exactly the sort of character I like, to a more standard jaded, angry protagonist.
That’s not to say any of this is badly done. It’s all fine, and I don’t know if I would have even noticed it in a novel where the first fifteen pages weren’t so absolutely tailored to me. Once that sort of perfection was established though, the fact that I didn’t get more of it was a little disappointing.
Just a little, though. Minor problems aside, this is generally strong and put together beautifully.
The plot is fun and interesting, and Hodge is, at least in this book, incredibly talented at ending a segment of the story at exactly the right place to make a reader want more. She manages, in this, to give a plot that actually has fairly little action more than enough page-turning tension. Even where there is some padding in the main plotline, the tantalizing little pieces of Tyr and Zisa’s backstory keep things moving.
The mystery and treasure hunt aspects of this are well done, too. I was actually surprised by the ultimate hiding place of the magic sword Rachelle spends most of the book looking for, and being caught off guard that much in a novel is something that’s becoming rarer and rarer in my old age.
And the opening may have skewed my expectations for the characters, but I can’t say they were badly done at all. A large portion of her arc is about Rachelle learning that she doesn’t have to be perfectly pure and innocent to be that reckless girl who wants to save the world, that sometimes understanding darkness can help in defeating it.
So, while I may have wanted a novel about who she was at the beginning, rather than the bitter, almost hopeless person she became after a couple of chapters, I can’t say I came away completely disappointed on that front. The tension between the two states actually adds some nice layers to the character; I can appreciate a lead that sometimes wants to slap people for being blindly happy, even as she wants to protect them.
The rest of the characters follow suit with the same depth. Armand, who plays the stupid dandy at court ends up being the moral center of the novel, and la Fontaine, who comes off as the mean-girl bully at first has a similar arc. Even Erec, who from the get-go is portrayed as despicable is fun in his horribleness; he’s written with the sort of life that means the author didn’t just create him to be a moralistic plot device, and actually enjoyed writing the character.
His awfulness is never used to undercut how personally important he is to Rachelle, either, which is a complexity I like to see a novel balance. That sort of complexity in the relationships carries through, too; Rachelle has realistically mixed feelings about everyone she interacts with, and the romance plot never takes over all of her thoughts, the way it does in so many novels.
The thing that really makes me love the book, though, the thing that almost completely makes up for its only giving me half of what I wanted, was the lore. The little bits and pieces of other stories that are blended together here make for a book just so full of ideas, and I can’t help but love trying to pick them all out.
This starts out reading like it’s going to be a straight “Little Red Riding Hood” retelling, but then Hodge starts pulling from other fairytales, and British myths, and actual fairy lore (which I consider sort of a different category than the other two). There’s even a splash of modern superheroes and urban vampire fantasy, with Rachelle brooding on the rooftops at points.
The fairytales referenced aren’t the ones that you normally see picked up, either. The two major ones are “The Girl Without Hands,” which I’d never heard of before, and “Little Red Riding Hood.” And while I have seen adaptations of the latter, I’ve never seen anything working with its “The Grandmother’s Tale” variation; Hodge’s take on the idea of the “path of needles and the path of pins,” is particularly interesting, and not only because I’ve never seen that concept brought up in a modern retelling.
I also love the idea of the woodwives, country women who are the main force working against the forestborn, using charms made of string and cloth and flowers. It’s a lovely little homage to the people who originally told these tales and the setting in which they were originally told.
Mix in some “Hansel and Gretel,” some “The Juniper Tree,” some Bran the Blessed, and some Unseelie Court, and you have a wonderful, layered mishmash. And that’s not even getting into the things that seem unique to this story. The two swords of bone are perfect for this tone, but I can’t place them and google’s turning up nothing. Ditto the idea of hunger being at the center of fairyland; it fits perfectly into fairy myths, but it’s nothing I’ve ever seen before. Hodge seems to have some innate understanding of classic fables, and it means that this cherry picking from so many sources, which could have seemed random and disjointed, holds together perfectly and works beautifully with the themes and character arcs she wants to create.
Basically, while there are some slip ups, most of this works together so wonderfully that I can forgive all its faults. The themes, plot, and characters all work together here in a way that’s rare for a novel: everything just clicks. And when you add that to the sort of fable-like storytelling I love and toss in a whole lot of mythology nerdery, you have something I can’t resist.