(Goodreads summary here.)
I am not going to lie: I was so excited for this book. It has so many things I love. Commentary on sexism and oppression? Yes. Mistaken crimes? Yes. Loving yet complex sibling relationships? Yes.
I was a little disappointed, though. Grace and Fury definitely had all the things I was excited about, but it also just fell a little flat overall. I enjoyed it, but I also don’t think it was anything overwhelmingly special. I would still recommend it if you like sibling dynamics and social commentary via fantasy worlds, but I wouldn’t break your back to get your hands on it if you haven’t already.
Let’s start with the basics. I really did love the dynamic between Serina and Nomi. I think healthy, loving sibling relationships are something that we need more of in literature and other media. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not like that for everyone and I certainly wouldn’t want that struggle to be erased. I just also think it would be nice for people to see that it doesn’t have to be that way. Additionally, I think there are far too many narratives about sisters (and women in general) seeing each other as competition, and I think that’s a norm that needs to go. Serina and Nomi have such a refreshingly realistic relationship: they bicker, they fight, they don’t see eye to eye, but they love each other. They’re different people with different views and goals, as they should.
I also really liked the plot of their “switched” roles. It’s a really easy yet compelling way to get characters to understand one another, and this was certainly no exception. Sure, it isn’t the typical “let’s just switch places for the fun of it” because, in fact, nothing about it is fun for anyone, but it was also a refreshing play on the “one gets caught for the other’s crime.” The fact that Nomi and Serina learn to understand the other without their presence also made for an intriguing plotline. They couldn’t stop to ask each other questions and there was a blessed lack of “I told you so” moments (although I’m sure we’ll see them in the sequel, but I can take that), which I find really opened up the personal growth of the individual sisters, rather than a joint growth that seems a bit more typical for these “switching” stories.
Surprisingly, I actually liked Serina more than Nomi (I know, I know, I just condemned sisters competing, but this is about personal preference.) Don’t get me wrong, I love a good headstrong rebel like Nomi, but I was just so much more impressed with Serina’s growth than I was Nomi’s. I think part of it is because it’s easier for me to understand how someone can move towards fighting back rather than towards submission, but some of it is also just because Serina seemed to gain life and spirit as she progressed. I’m trying to figure out how to say this without downplaying the importance and power of Nomi’s character development, but something about Serina unlearning submission was more powerful to me. That she also stuck to her morals, regardless of what would happen to her was wonderful to see. While there were parts of me that wanted her to break and turn against them, in the end, I thought it was more impressive that she didn’t.
As I said, I love a stubborn girl, but there were parts where Nomi crossed a line between stubborn and thoughtless. I’m not saying she’s not allowed to make mistakes; I just think she’s smart enough to have avoided those mistakes, which is perhaps what makes her a more tragic character. Her naivety is definitely meant to be a flaw in her character, and while I understand naïve characters, I find I often don’t have the patience for them. Maybe that’s unfair of me, but that’s just how it is for me sometimes. I absolutely recognize the fact that Nomi’s responses to her situation are 100% believable and valid, I just found some of her mistakes and beliefs to be a little frustrating.
If there is one thing I totally appreciate, it’s the fact the none of the new Graces compete with each other. When that aspect was introduced, I was a little worried it’d just be The Selection 2.0, which I would not have been terribly happy about. Perhaps it was just that there are only 3 girls rather than 35, but it also definitely seemed like Banghart went out of her way to promote unity and cooperation between the girls, which I appreciate wholeheartedly. So much of this book is about women having each other’s backs, and it’s something I want to see more of in popular media.
In that same vein, I really did like the social commentary that is ingrained in this book. The absolute oppression of women in society is absolutely terrifying to me, but it’s also something that is some people’s realities, which makes the dystopian aspect even worse. Grace and Fury even goes beyond the most atrocious acts of oppression to note the more everyday ones. I’m so happy Banghart took that extra step, because it makes it easier for the privileged reader to recognize both the atrocities they don’t see every day and the smaller things that they probably do see. I think there was a phenomenal balance between the small and big aggressions towards women. I also really liked the idea that Banghart gave an explicit reason why women are so oppressed. It could’ve been really easy for her to just decide to say, “This is just how it is, I don’t have to give a reason for it.” The addition of the reasoning was really powerful, in my opinion, largely because it made it more believable and was honestly just really empowering.
Okay, I don’t think I can talk about this next thing without spoiling some kind of important stuff, so stop here and skip to the cut if you haven’t read the book!
Alright, spoiler time: I think the whole “female protagonist doesn’t know which powerful brother to trust and ends up falling for both a little and then one ends up being evil” is a little tired. I think it can be done well if done the right way, but I don’t think this one quite met that standard. I think the tough thing for writers to navigate is the fact that the “evil younger brother manipulates the headstrong female main character” gets used so often that it doesn’t surprise me anymore. I kept wanting to believe that Malachi was the evil one just so that it would break that expectation and trope, but I just really did think Asa had something up his sleeve throughout the whole book. And maybe that’s just me and not the book, but the betrayal didn’t land as hard as it was probably intended for me. Maybe I was just a little fed up with Nomi’s sudden romance with Asa, but I still feel like I saw the twist coming from a mile away and not in a way that was satisfying.
I absolutely think that Banghart’s portrayals of sister dynamics and female friendships are something that need to be the norm in the media. And while there were aspects of this book that did end up frustrating me, it really was a solid story of survival and learning and love that was really refreshing. I do and always will love anything with even the slightest bit of social commentary, and bonus points if it is done in a fantasy world. So, yes, I liked Grace and Fury. I didn’t love it, but I do think it’s a great feminist fantasy.
What did you think of Grace and Fury? Do you have book recommendations for fantasy books that comment on current social issues?