Inventive, beautiful, bizarre, romantic, deep and occasionally mind-bending; certainly not the average YA fairy tale retelling, with some solid, if wild, world building, and characters with genuine flaws.
Here are the facts: The Romana-Graecian Empire fell to the barbarian hordes, and the emperor's youngest son, Claudius, retreated to the formerly martially occupied province out the outskirts of the empire, Arcadia, or as the local pagans call it, Anglia (our England). It is said that Hermes himself taught Claudius the Hermetic arts (but we all know that nothing is as it seems in legends, don't we?) and his line survived and thrived in the jewel of a kingdom he'd built until the last prince was conquered and killed by the Gentle Lord, and Arcadia was Sundered from the world, placed in a dome with a parchment sky and ruled by shadow-like demons. The Gentle Lord strikes bargains with those who approach him, which always have dire and ironic consequences, and for nine hundred years, the people of Arcadia have lived in fear and horror in their shadowed world.
Before Nyx Triskelion was born, her father made a bargain with the Gentle Lord, for healthy children, naturally with a catch: Leonidas Triskelion would have to surrender one of his twin daughters on her seventeenth birthday to be the Gentle Lord's wife. For two hundred years, the rebel organization of Hermetic scholars called the Resurgandi have looked for a way to beat the Gentle Lord: and in Nyx, they believe they've found their best hope. She's trained for nearly half of her life in the Hermetic arts in hopes that, when she's given over to the Gentle Lord, she'll be able to find the four "Hearts" of his house, water, fire, air, earth, dismantle them and undo the Sundering.
Her training also has the unfortunate side effect of making her father distant, her sister coddled and cossetted, and Nyx a very bitter and angry young woman. She knows she's going to her certain death, with only the promise that she'll be avenging her mother's death to bolster her. When she is symbolically married to the Gentle Lord, she's taken to his tower (which turns out to be an ever expanding, seemingly endless, dimension defying manor house with rooms filled with meadows and water and lavish bedrooms, libraries, shrines, and everything else that could, and couldn't be imagined. She also finds out that the Gentle Lord isn't exactly what she thought he was, and that his shadow and servant, Shade, might be the key to every goal she is seeking to accomplish.
And this is essentially just in the first eighty pages! Of course, there are plenty of twists and turns, and though I was spoiled for a major, major plot point, the novel still managed to surprise me, and to boggle the mind with its complexity.
Nyx is an interesting heroine. She not particularly likable, not in the traditional sense: she's angry, and though she has the need to be loved, it's not a maudlin desire; she doesn't pine. As a matter of fact, it seems to make her rage more potent, and her bitterness more fierce. She is irreparably damaged, and, at first, is taken with the gentility, dignity, sincerity and chivalry of the enslaved Shade. She spars with Ignifex (the Gentle Lord) verbally, and these exchanges are some of the best I've read between two characters. With true animosity, and always a sense of amusement, they bicker, he's comebacks always eliciting a giggle from me.
I resisted falling in love with Ignifex for as long as I could. I'm not a villains type of girl. But he wore me down. And his compatibility with Nyx becomes clearer and clearer, as her chemistry with Shade peters out, the pressure he's putting on her becoming a weight. It's her anger that he's attracted to, and her brutal honesty (as he notes, she may lie, but she never lies to herself) and it turns into a genuinely touching romance. I was also delighted to see a YA novel deal frankly with sex, both the nature of her fear as she became a married woman (and how society fuels that), and her satisfying sexual relationship with Ignifex, once they fall in love.
The story is a mash-up, of sorts; I've seen a lot of these lately, fairy tale mash-ups, and while Alethea Kontis' Enchanted is probably still my favorite, the effortless way this blends Beauty and the Beast (and, more to the point, the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros, which Beauty and the Beast is said to be a variation of), Rumpelstiltskin, Bluebeard and hints of others is truly breathtaking at times. The pacing in spot on (for a book this complex, a true feat!) and the prose genuinely beautiful, evocative in its description, but never going overboard into the purple. Hodge is definitely one to watch, and I await her sophomore effort, Crimson Bound--a variation on Little Red Riding Hood taking place in the same world--with excitement.
It's true, Ignifex's masters, the Kindly Ones, do leave clues to follow, as does the author; I think a reread would be extremely satisfying, to catch all of these little things, as I remembered a few of them in retrospect, but I think I'd be surprised at how many clues she sprinkled throughout. And I loved that the solution to everything was what Nyx had learned about making bargains, about how no matter how righteous or pious or selfless they believe they are, the bargainers always believe that they truly deserve the prize, and so the bargain that she purposes is simply that she take the punishment, that that in of itself would be the reward, because she'd be with her true love. A simple solution, but elegant, and poignant. The reset on the world also seems necessary when we've seen that almost all of the characters have damaged themselves, or have been damaged, far beyond repair. Nothing feels like a cop-out.
“You deserve all that and more. It made me happy to see you suffer. I would do it all over again if I could." I realized I was shaking as the words tumbled out of me. "I would do it again and again. Every night I would torment you and laugh. Do you understand? You are never safe with me." I drew a shuddering breath, trying to will away the sting of tears.
He opened his eyes and stared up at me as if I were the door out of Arcadia and back to the true sky. "That's what makes you my favorite."