Title: Heart of Thorns
Author: Bree Barton
Series: Book 1 in a trilogy
Genre: YA high fantasy
Pub. Date: July 31st, 2018 from Katherine Tegen
Synopsis: In the ancient river kingdom, touch is a battlefield, bodies the instruments of war. Seventeen-year-old Mia Rose has pledged her life to hunting Gwyrach: women who can manipulate flesh, bones, breath, and blood.
Not women. Demons. The same demons who killed her mother without a single scratch.
But when Mia’s father suddenly announces her marriage to the prince, she is forced to trade in her knives and trousers for a sumptuous silk gown. Only after the wedding goes disastrously wrong does she discover she has dark, forbidden magic—the very magic she has sworn to destroy.
I’ve had the great fortune to read mostly 4/5 star books this year, but it appears that a below-three-starrer finally slipped through the cracks. I want to be honest from the beginning that I didn’t like this book – but if you did, that’s totally fine! There were a number of reasons it just wasn’t for me.
Before we dive into those though, I’ll list the things that Heart of Thorns did have going for it. From an overall standpoint, the story is very entertaining. I turned pages quickly and wanted to find out what happened next in Mia’s wily adventures across a strange fantasy world. The banter between Mia and Quin (the love interest) was probably my favorite part! I chuckled through the whole first third of the book (with high hopes for an increasingly better plot but unfortunately, that did not happen). I wish we had gotten to see even more snarky interaction between them.
Heart of Thorns also had an awesome premise, while the part that failed was the execution. I loved the idea of a magic system used only by women, born out of oppression and as a defense against the terrible ways of men. But I’ll say it now and I’ll probably say it again before this review is done: the feminist themes needed a lot more unpacking than they got.
This book felt like the feminist book the publishing world may want, but definitely not the one that we need. Maybe this is just me, but I’m personally tired of narratives that focus on a fantasy world where women are forced into marriage and physically assaulted. There are so many books like this already, and frankly so many stories that do it much better than this book did. When I have to read an attempted rape scene that’s used entirely as a (poor) plot device, I would at least like there to be some discussion, some unpacking. But instead, the author chose to breeze completely past it in favor of an action scene.
There’s also a heavy focus on the more arbitrary parts of the patriarchy (see quote below), rather than the fact that women are literally being killed and maimed for who they are. At the end of the day, I could never get on board with that kind of feminism.
“I’ve always hated that part of the vows. Just once I’d like to hear ‘woman and husband.”
I will give the author credit for at least attempting to make the feminism intersectional, as there are multiple LGBTQ+ characters and one (yes, literally just one) identified character of color. But yet again, this was very poorly done. The book just screamed, “Look at me!!! I can be diverse!! See! Here’s a gay character!” It was all written as afterthoughts and add-ons, rather than a given. I want more fantasies where being LGBTQ+ or a POC or disabled or any other marginalization is just accepted. Where those characters can exist without contradiction, because we already have to live in a reality where that is unfortunately not the case.
And one last thing regarding the representation and feminist themes: towards the end of the book, there’s a scene I would consider to be ableist. It’s probably debatable, but a character with deformities and scars is made to be a villain for wanting to heal herself and make herself “whole.”
Aside from those issues though, there were a number of other things that made this book hard to get through. Like the feminism, the world-building needed much more development. The main fantasy nation had city names and a vocabulary that seemed Gaelic/Irish/Scandinavian inspired to me (I couldn’t tell you specifically, but basically European). It felt like your classic Game of Thrones-style world. But then right next door was another nation with an Asian (possibly Japanese) inspired name with volcanic islands that made it feel more like Polynesia. In total, this fantasy world was a hot-freaking-mess. The author clearly didn’t do enough research, or needed to pick one culture to use as inspiration.
As for Mia? Well, I certainly hoped for more from a protagonist that shares the same name as me. She wasn’t terrible, but there were moments when I really thought I would throw the book across the room if I had to read one more scientific term from my freshman biology textbook awkwardly thrown into her dialogue. I’m all for having female protagonists with a love for STEM, but literally no one refers to another person’s head as their “cortex” in passing conversation. Oh, and finding dead meat attractive? Suuuure I’m not grossed out at allll.
“She wouldn’t have thought watching a boy butcher meat would be attractive, but seeing Quin’s hands flick over the viscera, separating fat from bone, was, in a word, appealing.”
And the romance felt very forced, with no chemistry whatsoever. I’ll just say that I think the author put a straight romance where there definitely should have been a gay one.
Finally, the ending sort of culminated in this big-hot-mess fiasco to end all the other big-hot-messes that trailed throughout the book. Antagonists showed up left and right with no obvious motive, and the “big twist” was predictable. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be reading the rest of the series.
Would I Recommend This Book?
I think no one is surprised when I say a definite “no” to this question. If you’re looking for a real feminist fantasy, I suggest Sky in the Deep or Song of the Current.
Have you read Heart of Thorns? Did you find it to be disappointing like me, or did you find it more enjoyable? What are your most recent 1 or 2 star reads?