Crimson Bound

This is why I read YA.  No, that's not entirely true.  This is why I read.  Full stop.

This book.  And Marcus Sedgwick's The Ghosts of Heaven.  And Nova Ren Suma's The Walls Around Us.  Something about the words in these books, the characters in these books, the sheer beauty of the language in these books ... it reaches into my heart and grabs it and wrings it out until I'm gasping for breath.  And that's a good book.  I don't care if it's adult, YA, kidlit, or books for aliens.

As is so often the case when I'm, for lack of a better word, bouleversée by a particular book, I don't often feel up to the task of properly reviewing it.  I feel more like making squealing noises and tossing copies of the book at everyone who crosses my path (fear not, I cannot do this yet, as I do not have access to Crimson Bound in corporeal form).

Perhaps I should start more books expecting to hate them.  As with this one and The Ghosts of Heaven, I went in fully prepared to say, "Nope."  Instead, they charmed me and hooked me and dragged me in.  I love it when books do that to you.  To me.

On the surface, Crimson Bound sounds like another retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.  "We've already had one of those!" you shout.  "Remember Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce?"  Erm, well, yes, but I didn't like it.  You are correct, though, that retelling fairy tales and myths is big business in YA fantasy.  There are so many ways it can go wrong.  Crimson Bound gets everything perfectly right.

Rosamund Hodge doesn't just use Little Red Riding Hood, but also The Girl with No Hands.  If you haven't read it, please do so.  So often, the moral of the Red Riding Hood story is all the Bad Things that happen to girls (specifically girls, and I'll get to that in a moment) when they "stray from the path" of morality, trusting in strange men (wolves).  There's all sorts of sexual politics that I could yammer on about, but better and more intelligent writers than I have tackled that already, so suffice it to say that I rather expected Crimson Bound to be about a submissive, Mary-Sue heroine who takes no initiative and blindly follows where the gorgeous men (for there must be several) in her life attempt to lead her.

WRONG!  As a perfectionist and introvert, I only enjoy being wrong when the end result is itself enjoyable,  i.e. this book.

Rachelle's aunt, the village woodwife, is training her to one day assume the duties of the woodwives in protecting the villagers from the Forestborn and the dangers of the Great Forest.  The mythology of this world is fairly complex, but here are the salient points:

  1. A Long Time Ago, a brother and a sister defeated the Devourer at great cost to themselves.
  2. Alas! The Devourer was not destroyed; only weakened.  He controls another dimension called the Great Forest and sends his animalistic servants, the Forestborn, to hunt and corrupt humans.
  3. If you are marked by a Forestborn, you become Bloodborn.  When this happens, you must either kill someone within three days or die an agonizing death.
Woodwives weave charms in yarn and thread to protect against the Forestborn, but Rachelle knows in her heart that it isn't enough, and that it will never be enough.  She unwisely leaves the path one day and tempts fate by speaking to a Forestborn.  She believes that she's strong enough to resist him--until the day he marks her.  

Several years later, Rachelle is in the service of the great king Auguste-Phillippe II as one of his corps of Bloodborn.  These elite hunters track down Forestborn in exchange for a stay of execution.  As Bloodborn, their souls are damned and they have obviously murdered at least once.  Wracked with guilt over the murder she committed in order to live, Rachelle nonetheless revels in the power of being Bloodborn.  She's faster, stronger, and a better fighter than any normal human.  She believes that she's repaying her debt in a small way by hunting those who turned her, and she is relatively content in this.  Until one day, when the king assigns her to be the personal bodyguard of one of his (many) bastard sons.

The social structure in Crimson Bound is very like the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King (as a French major and history nerd, I loved this).  There are intrigues upon intrigues, mistresses galore, even more royal bastards galore, and at the center of it all: a weak, old king who regards himself as divine.  Rachelle would really rather not guard Armand, but as the king commands, and as her Bloodborn commander and friend, Erec d'Anjou commands ... she must.

Far from being the fussy pretty boy so often paired with our heroine in these types of fantasies, Armand is just plain ... nice (or is he?).  He is the only person to have been Marked, not killed anyone, and yet not died.  His salvation came with great sacrifice: both of his hands were cut off, and he wears hands of silver that attach to the stumps on his arms.  The people regard him as a saint and a weaver of miracles.  Rachelle thinks he's a phony and a hack.  That is, until she realizes that he's not into this whole saint thing either.  

Yes.  There is a smidge of a love triangle here.  Sort of.  And I still loved it.  Am I crazy?  The book might just be that good.

Meanwhile, Rachelle attempts to navigate the multilayered hypocrisy of court with the assistance of her friend Amélie, who is a makeup artist (NO JUDGING.  Hodge's descriptions of makeup application and how it heals Amélie are really lovely).  Plots swirl around the king and his various children, and she has to deal with Erec trying to make her one of his many female conquests.  Oh, and the world is probably going to end in a few weeks, because the Devourer will manifest at the Summer Solstice and basically eat the world.  

I know this all sounds a bit odd--I'm probably not selling it well at all--but trust me when I say that it is beautifully written and that the characters are all fully realized.  Hodge kept tossing in these plot twists that literally made me look up from my Kindle with my jaw slightly slack, mumbling something like, "Whoa whaaaa whoa?"

And can we just talk about how great Rachelle is as a female protagonist? Unlike many YA assassins/murderers/bad girls, Rachelle actually is a kick-butt fighter and slayer of monsters.  She kicks mucho butt at every opportunity.  She also makes decisions about her sexuality and owns them. She's the first to admit that she makes mistakes, but she refuses to be slut-shamed for doing what all the men are doing as well, and with society's tacit approval.  Rachelle clearly understands the difference between lust and love, and doesn't run around proclaiming herself to be in love with guys.  She recognizes and acknowledges physical attraction, but still weighs the pros and cons of committing to an emotionally-invested romantic relationship.  

I have the sinking feeling that this may be one of the worst reviews I've ever written, which is an awful shame.  So, if you've made it this far, forget all of my rambling and incoherency and get thee on the waitlist/pre-order list for this book.  Or I'll send Rachelle to kick your butt.


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