As one of my most anticipated July releases, the much-hyped Grace and Fury was especially disappointing to dislike. I waffled for a long time about whether I should bump this one up to three stars. It isn’t as though there isn’t anything to like, and I’m sure it’ll find readers that it’s perfect for. In that spirit of generosity, I’m going to begin with the positive.
In a refreshing break from the first-person POV that dominates YA, Grace and Fury works through a gentle, distant third-person perspective that alternates between the sisters’ perspectives. Early on in the story, the two sisters are separated: Serina, the older, is shipped to a nightmarish all-female prison island, while the headstrong Nomi finds herself be-ballgowned in the young prince’s… harem, I suppose. Switching between the sisters, the story never dragged. Things moved quickly as the story alternated between two very YA settings, the royal court of tiaras and scheming and the brutal dystopian battlefield. I love this concept, and Banghart did a wonderful job of balancing the two stories. There are wonderful bits of dramatic irony as the stories mirror each other and the two girls fight to return to their sister.
If I were being positive, I’d call the style simple and “storybook.” It should almost begin with “Once upon a time, in a land where women have no rights, two sisters…” There’s something sort of lovely about a book that simply tells you what happened and who did it without forcing you through any unnecessary worldbuilding or scenes that don’t progress the plot.
If I were being negative, though, I’d say the book was underwritten and read more like a detailed plot summary than an actual book. There isn’t much more character development in the actual novel than there is in the plot summary above. Important scenes that should have had, I don’t know, sensory details or emotion or literally anything feel like scribbled first drafts. One representative moment is a scene in which Serina, coddled all her life, fights another person for the first time. It’s a huge emotional turning point and a brutal fistfight and it takes less than two pages. Two pages! And all we learn of Serina’s feelings is that she doesn’t particularly like it.
Even the most glowing reviews don’t claim the book immersed them in the story or had characters that felt real. Yes, it was fun to feel free to create my own images and characters in my imagination… but that’s supposed to be the author’s job.
The style, though, I could get over. There are a lot of things I didn’t like about this book that I’m willing to excuse as minor problems or simple “not for me.” Something I cannot stand, however, is a book that treats its readers like they’re stupid. There’s no place in YA for condescension.
That condescension begins with the story’s unbelievable lack of originality. There’s nothing wrong with reading a book that makes you think, as I did, this feels a little like Divergent or this part is kinda like The Selection. A certain amount of that is to be expected, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing—books in the same genre will pull from the same tropes and plot structures and character types. We read anyway because we enjoy watching them play out and experiencing a new author’s take on them.
Grace and Fury, however, took this too far, particularly in the last third. Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m marking this as a spoiler since any reader over the age of ten will see it coming from page 100, but the blatant Red Queen rip-off that is Nomi’s storyline was appalling. Not only is exactly beat-for-beat the same plot, but it isn’t even done well! Whereas Aveyard made the trope of the scheming younger prince into a memorable, truly shocking twist, Banghart added nothing to the type, lazily going through the motions without bothering to put in the character work necessary—then having the gall to act like we should be surprised. Even in a sub-genre of YA that repeats and retreads a few tropes over and over again, I was frankly shocked that no editors or early readers had insisted on that story beat being changed.
Once you reach the halfway mark and everything is set up, you’ll be able to predict more or less every event for the rest of the book. Predictability wouldn’t be such a crime if it were accompanied by a captivating voice or interesting character relationships, but Banghart’s style choices mean there’s literally nothing except the plot for the reader to hang on to.
I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this book wants the fun and attention of a YA bestseller without putting in any of the work. In this respect, Grace and Fury’s biggest crime was its pretension of being some great feminist triumph. Guys, I could write a whole essay of disappointment on the billing of this book as a “feminist novel.” Frankly, I think that’s a dumb way to sell any book, but in Grace and Fury’s case, it really tipped the publisher’s hand. It seems like this book got all the push because it checked boxes (royalty, death matches, empowered women) and nobody bothered to read the actual book.
Post-Hunger Games YA bestsellers have earned their reputation for being feminist books by actually walking the walk; works like Red Queen are filled with interesting, fleshed-out female characters that exist in their own right and aren’t in the story just to be attached to a man. Grace and Fury wants to skip all that. Banghart has essentially taken 2018 teenagers and transplanted them into this world, giving zero attention to the ways growing up in a society where women’s inferiority is taken for granted might affect the way these women see themselves and their world. Without any character development to speak of and nothing interesting to say about gender, the book just shoves some “badass women” at you (you can tell they’re badass because they have short hair and punch people) and halts the entire story to make sure you know one of them is gay. Grace and Fury so badly wants its lazily written lines to be converted into entry-level feminism slogans and printed on posters to be hung on every 12-year-old’s bedroom wall that it doesn’t have time to actually live up to the cringe-worthy opening quote. This book could have been written ten or twenty years ago—probably better, with less patronizing finger-wagging towards the one “good feminist boy.”
I think I’m so disappointed in Grace and Fury not just because of its faults but because it had so much potential. In approached with more respect, thoughtfulness, and hard work, this story could have been something special. Unfortunately, Banghart doesn’t seem to respect her readers or care about her characters enough to make the story good for anything but slogan on a tote bag.