The Grace Year is described as a “haunting, feminist YA speculative thriller,” and I mostly agree with that assessment. It’s twisted, memorable, and eerie (there is a tree from which severed fingers and other body parts hang). It’s a book you’ll be thinking about for days after you’ve finished reading, but it does struggle with being overly ambitious in subplots and when it comes to a satisfactory ending, it doesn’t stick the landing.
There is graphic violence, though thankfully no sexual violence, and people just being really shitty to one another, but I feel like these are things you will glean from the book description and set up. Please note this review spoils a fair of the book, but those spoilers are hidden.
In Garner County, young women are feared for their magic, which gives them the ability to lure men away from their families and turn wives violent with jealousy. At the age of sixteen, young women are banished for a year to purge themselves of their magic. No one speaks of what happens during the grace year. Some women never make it back alive, while others return missing fingers or ears, emaciated, and noticeably traumatized.
Before they’re sent off, they celebrate Veiling Day, where men give the grace year girls veils, claiming them for marriage should they return. The women who do not get veils and still return at the end of the grace year will become laborers. Since the origin of the grace year stems from punishing women for Eve’s trickery in tempting Adam, a woman whose body doesn’t make it back (either alive or dead) is thought to have shirked her penance. If a woman’s body is not recovered from the grace year, someone must take a punishment in her stead. It’s usually a younger sibling; they’re sent to the outskirts of the county and forced into prostitution to survive, as it’s the only means of earning an income in the outskirts. Escaping the grace year is not an option, as poachers stalk the boundaries of the county and the grace year camp, taking women to kill and dismember to sell their “magical” body parts on the black market.
This all sounds like a fucking nightmare, right?
A lot of the promotion for this book makes comparisons to Lord of the Flies and The Handmaid’s Tale, both of which tick some catnip boxes for me. I love a good fucked up dystopian tale with women scheming to reclaim their power.
Those comparable titles fit The Grace Year, but only for around half of the book, namely the beginning and the end. The middle is…odd. Not bad, but it loses a lot of the momentum that is introduced in the beginning by the grace year girls fighting the elements, wrestling with the unknown, and ultimately turning on one another. When a book starts off strong and increases the tension, page after page, only to have it stall for a large chunk in the middle, my attention really begins to wane.
Tierney James, the main character, never wanted to receive a veil. She hoped she’d survive the grace year and come back to work in the fields as a laborer. I’m iffy on Tierney as a heroine. I understood her frustration with the people around her, as she fought to maintain her autonomy in a society that punishes such things. However, she felt too “super special” to me.
Out of the 30+ girls sent off to their grace year, she’s the only tomboy. She’s the one who teaches the other girls how to chop wood. She’s the one who suggests banding together so they can all survive. She’s the one who figures out what’s really going on between the county officials and their setup of the grace year.
There’s nothing Tierney can’t do and she’s going to be the one to fix everything and save her fellow grace year girls!
The heavy handedness wore on me.
Where the book shines is through the ability to keep me guessing. There were several twists that I sure as hell didn’t guess correctly, which I see as a good.
The biggest twist for me:
The poachers believe the grace year girls are cursed (spoiler within a spoiler: it’s smallpox) and by “culling the herd,” they’re keeping the curse at bay. Additionally, if they sell enough body parts to the county, they’ll be able to move their families out of the outskirts where women are often forced into prostitution to keep a roof over their head.
It’s a “yikes all the way down” situation.
If I did the math right (I probably didn’t) there are four reveals; some are more impactful than others, but none that I truly figured out on my own.
There is a romance, but dedicated romance fans will want to toss their book or kindle across the room as this definitely does not adhere to romance novel conventions. But keep in mind, this is not a romance novel, despite it including a romantic subplot.
Keeping her safe turns into pants feelings, then some fade to black sex, and later a pregnancy. Tierney and Ryker have plans to run away together, though other poachers get wind of this plan and are not happy about it. Ryker dies.
That’s right. He dies. I was very upset.
The romance is also…lackluster, especially given Tierney’s strong feelings about becoming a wife or creating a long term romantic commitment to any man. I would have been okay with keeping the poacher twist reveal, without any added romance since it drastically slowed things down.
I split my time reading and listening to this one, and I highly recommend the audio. The narrator, Emily Shaffer, has an amazing voice. There were times when I’d read a passage and then go to the audiobook just to hear Shaffer read it aloud. She captures the contained rage, the helplessness, the confusion–all these complicated emotions that Tierney and the grace year girls experience–with great care and nuance. I will undoubtedly be looking for additional audiobooks narrated by Shaffer
This passage at the end of the book pretty much broke me down into ugly sobs while reading, and then listening to it just made me into a snotty, goopy mess.
I’m telling Gertie to stand down, don’t get in trouble for me, when Kiersten follows suit. One by one, the girls fall in around me. It nearly brings me to my knees. Never in my life have I seen a group of women stand together in this way. And as I look around the square, I can tell it doesn’t go unnoticed. The men are too caught up in their rhetoric, screaming red-faced into the voice, but the women stand in soft silence, as if they’ve been waiting for this their whole lives. And like smoke signals on a distance mountain, I see a flash of red spread throughout the crowd.
A tiny red flower under the apron bib of the woman from the flower stand; she gave me a purple iris before I left, the symbol of hope. There’s a red flower beneath the ruffle of Aunt Linny’s dress; I remember her telling me to stay in the woods where I belong, even dropping a sprig of holly, just like the bushes leading to the ridge. There’s a red flower pinned underneath June’s collar; June sewed every single seed into my cloak…in secret. And my mother, telling me that water was best when it came high on the spring.
They risked everything to try to help me and I didn’t even know it. All I can hear is my mother’s words. “Your eyes are wide open, but you see nothing,” I whisper.
The women have been conspiring all along and it’s such a strong moment, given that the men are too caught up in yelling and asserting their power to realize it.
If you’re hoping for a kickass revolution, there is none in this book. Instead, there are quiet moments of change. If you’re after a “burn it all down” scenario, I’m warning you that you’ll be disappointed. The ending is a little odd because it’s open to interpretation. I hate those and I know that’s a personal preference. If you want to see me get riled up, just ask me about the final scene on Inception. I need something clear cut because my own indecisiveness is unable to definitively settle on anything.
With Tierney’s first person POV being the only one readers get, what happens to the other grace year girls is gleaned from Tierney’s own observations. There are snippets of how they settle into their lives upon returning to the county, but nothing on how the events of the grace year have changed them personally. There’s a lot of lead up to a revolution that never actually happens.
And the ending:
I’ve been thinking about this ending for days because there is no answer on what happens. If Ryker’s spirit welcomes her, I’m assuming that means Tierney died in childbirth. If he passes through her, she doesn’t. But there is no indication either way and it’s driving me bonkers.
The Grace Year will be a polarizing book for many readers, more so if you’re a romance reader. There are elements people will either love of hate and while I wouldn’t say all of Tierney’s decisions gelled with me, this is also a book I cannot stop thinking about. It’s a brutal gut punch, watching women trapped in a cycle of submission and violence at the hands of men. As of now, no follow up as been announced and I’m conflicted about a sequel. On one hand, the seeds of change have been sown, but I also would have liked to have seen more dismantling of the patriarchy (story of my life!).