Being gifted in a fantasy world is often a trait envied by us mere mortal readers. But when it comes to Alessa, the lonely and mistrusted protagonist in Emily Thiede’s debut This Vicious Grace, her gift isn’t one that anyone would really want. In fact, it feels more like a curse. Granted by the gods to be able to magnify a partner’s magic, Alessa should be the saviour of her people. Instead, every suitor she touches dies.
With mere weeks left until an apocalyptic swarm of demons descends on her island home, devouring everything in their path, Alessa is running out of time to prove herself as a legitimate and formidable Finestra. And when an influential priest convinces the faithful that killing Alessa is their only hope for survival, not only does she become a target for assassination but her few remaining allies begin to doubt her too. Desperate to survive, Alessa hires Dante – a cynical outcast and skilled fighter with his own dark secrets – to be her personal bodyguard. He might be the only person Alessa can actually trust but Dante’s reasons for accepting the position aren’t entirely altruistic.
Thiede doesn’t waste any time throwing readers into Alessa’s fraught existence and her struggle to become the hallowed protector she’s expected to be. Her loneliness and fear is palpable from the beginning. As the ‘chosen one’, she should be revered and celebrated. In reality she’s isolated and ostracised. It’s not her fault but she can’t seem to break the cycle of killing her Fontes – people with powers chosen to be her partner in defeating the demons. Dante’s arrival doesn’t just breathe normality into her life – he’s the only person who isn’t intimidated or scared of her – but also light, friendship, courage and – ultimately – love too.
She’d always believed she was supposed to embrace her isolation, blamed herself for letting loneliness fill the spaces meant to hold divinity, but Dante’s words had her doubting. Maybe she’d been fighting the current, swimming in the wrong direction, all along.“
The lively back-and-fourth bantering between Alessa and Dante is the vibrant spark of energy that makes This Vicious Grace such an alluring and passionate read. Their chemistry sizzles from start to end, their relationship shifting naturally with the beats of the story – sometimes playful, sometimes tender and always respectful – despite Dante’s insistence that he’s neither good nor a hero. They’re an easy duo to root for and the witty battle of intentional innuendos between them is one of the genuine highlights of the book. Thiede should truly get an award for how many suggestive remarks she was able to slot into one novel!
That strong focus on Alessa and Dante gives a lovely intimate feel to the story but it also highlights the book’s weakness too: its tunnel vision. Having a lonely character like Alessa and keeping her at a constant distance from those around her, distances the reader too. Unlike Alessa and her charmingly gruff bodyguard, the peripheral characters don’t feel fully fleshed out and remain fairly detached until later in the book when they’re given the chance to help Alessa save her world. Which is a shame, as there are some really intriguing found family characters on the fringes of the central romance – particularly Alessa’s reluctant potential Fontes, each with their own unique powers and personalities.
In a similar fashion to Kerri Maniscalco’s Kingdom of the Wicked, This Vicious Grace has an irresistible Italian vibe threaded through the story, evoking a summery Mediterranean feel that’s like stepping off a boat and onto a sunny island full of lemon trees and mouth-watering delicacies. The history of the world the characters exist in, and how the past relates to their present, isn’t given quite enough time to really immerse readers in the wider magic and political system beyond Alessa’s island, but that lack of multi-layered world-building doesn’t detract from how fun and readable the entire story is.
Gorgeously atmospheric and effortlessly romantic, This Vicious Grace is a high stakes story with a central duo you truly miss when the book ends. If the thrilling climatic battle between the book’s heroes and the demons is anything to go by, Emily Thiede has much more up her sleeve than a heart-fluttering romance between a saviour and her bodyguard. And the surprise revelation at the end suggests we should be very excited about the sequel.
This Vicious Grace is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 28 June 2022