by Bree Barton
Mia Rose wants only one thing: revenge against the Gwyrach—feared, reviled, and magical women—who killed her mother. After years training under her father’s infamous Hunters, Mia is ready. She will scour the four kingdoms, find her mother’s murderer, and enact the Hunters’ Creed: heart for a heart, life for a life.
But when Mia is thrust into the last role she ever wanted—promised wife to the future king—she plots a daring escape. On her wedding night, Mia discovers something she never imagined: She may be a Huntress, but she’s also a Gwyrach. As the truth comes to light, Mia must untangle the secrets of her own past. Now if she wants to survive, Mia must learn to trust her heart . . . even if it kills her.
WARNING: This review will contain some mild spoilers, so if you haven't read this yet and you want to read it knowing absolutely nothing, it's best to come back to this review later.
I'll be honest and say Heart of Thorns isn't usually the kind of book I'd go for. This might sound strange; fair enough it's only just this year in particular that I've been rediscovering my love for high fantasy and, let's be honest, who am I to say no to a book that's basically about witches and empowering women? And yet, for the most part, I can usually tell from a book's blurb whether I'm going to like it or not, and if I'd read this book's blurb in a shop I probably wouldn't have picked it up.
This is a very long-winded way of me saying that I received this in a Fairyloot box (guiltily, I'm usually way more interested in the stuff in those boxes rather than the book), and I took it as a sign to step out of my comfort zone and read the kind of YA I've been avoiding for a while because I usually don't like it. And, as you can probably tell from my rating, I didn't love this one.
The thing is I didn't hate it by any means either, and I think with a bit more editing and a few changes here and there I would have liked it, but as it wore on there were things that just grated on me.
Glas Ddir is one of four kingdoms in this world, a kingdom that has shut itself off from the other three and is ruled by an evil king who loves the power he has over women in particular. That's pretty much all we know about him, he's your generic evil king and he's there to do his job. Mia Rose is the daughter of the leader of the king's Hunters, a group of men (and one woman) who hunt Gwyrach. Essentially, Gwyrach are witches and in this kingdom all women could potentially be one, so they're forced to wear gloves at all times so they can't use their power.
Three years previously Mia's beloved mother was killed by a Gwyrach and she dreams of finding the woman who killed her and seeking her revenge; she longs to be a Huntress more than anything else. Her father has other plans, and the story opens with Mia preparing to marry the heir to Glas Ddir, Prince Quin. Soon enough, though, Mia discovers that she's a Gwyrach herself and she and Quin are forced to flee Glas Ddir. From then on Mia struggles with her feelings of being the kind of person she hates, and also discovers her mother wasn't exactly who she thought she was either.
Now there are some great things in this book. Firstly, the king is very proud of his 'Hall of Hands', a room in the palace full of the left hands of women he has captured accused of being a Gwyrach. Before he kills them he saws off their left hand, and there are some genuinely gut-wrenching moments of Mia realising just how small some of those hands are, and that a lot of the people her father and the king have killed were just children.
I also loved that Mia's mother was a complex woman, and I loved that Mia had to come to terms with the fact that her mother was her own person - she wasn't just 'mother' - and as such there were many parts of her that Mia knew nothing about. I think at some point growing up we all have that moment of 'oh, you're also a flawed human being' when we look at our parents.
There's also a feminist streak to this book; women being persecuted for using magic (something that has actually happened in our history) is always going to have something of a feminist vibe and I did like some of the discussions of how a partiarchy had made Mia believe that women with power were evil. That being said, sometimes I felt like I was getting beaten about the head a bit with the whole 'women have it rough' thing.
I mean, I feel you, I'm also a woman and I know firsthand just how important feminism is, but I just wasn't always a fan of how it was handled here. Particularly as one character claims women were first able to do magic because of some trauma they experienced, such as sexual assault, but I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of a woman having to go through such a horrific ordeal to become powerful. I dunno, I'm sure that's not what the book or the author was saying but I think there was some clumsy wording throughout the novel that would have been so much better with a bit of editing.
(Also, fantasy worlds are whole new worlds - why do they all have to be run by a partiarchy?)
I found Mia herself pretty annoying throughout the novel, and while I really appreciate that Barton wrote this flawed heroine who has to unlearn what she's been told, she still just got on my nerves. Beyond her I didn't find any of the characters particularly memorable - in fact I had to look up Quin's name earlier because I realised I remembered him best as 'the prince' in my head, and even now that I've reminded myself that he was called Quin it somehow doesn't seem right.
Quin himself was fairly interesting. Yet again, he's the generic 'prince who disagrees with his evil father but is powerless to stop him', but he's also bisexual, and it's always nice to see more bisexuals in YA, but there were a few times I couldn't help rolling my eyes whenever Mia described his 'sculpted muscles' or 'golden curls' or the various ways she described his eyes. I can always tell I'm reading YA by how many descriptions of eyes I've been given. It was especially strange to have this much description when there was zero chemistry between him and Mia.
The big problem I had with him, and this is where that spoiler comes in, is we're told Quin's father discovered he was bisexual when he discovered him secretly meeting his music teacher after dark. As punishment, the king mutilated this poor boy and made Quin watch and then kicked him out of the palace to beg on the streets. Mia later discovers that a beggar the two of them meet when they escape the castle, who Quin pauses to take food from (which he later criticises for being mouldy - how ungrateful) was Quin's music teacher and Quin knew this. Now I understand that seeing him being hurt like that would make Quin terrified of his father and make him not want to meet with his lover anymore for fear of being the reason he was hurt even more, but something in me was really annoyed that while Quin got to move on with Mia this poor boy was left with nothing, living on mouldy bread.
In fact this is one of two LGBT+ romances in this book that have a tragic ending, and I'm really bored of LGBT+ romances with tragic endings. Trust me. There are plenty of them out there already.
There was also an infuriating scene in which Mia and Quin walked into a trap that was CLEARLY A TRAP. Mia even thought it herself and then still did nothing about it. I understand they were exhausted and starving at this point, but it was so obviously a trap and the way they ended up escaping it felt like a scene from an episode of Looney Tunes.
All in all Heart of Thorns just wasn't for me. I hoped to like it a lot more, and there were aspects of it that I really did like, but it didn't float my boat and I think it could have with a few tweaks here or there. If you love your YA fantasy then give this one a try, but I can't say I'd personally recommend it and I won't be continuing with this series, but as this is Barton's debut I may check out some of her other work separate from this series in the future as and when it appears.