We’ve heard of princesses being saved, languishing unsaved, and even saving themselves. But in Heather Walter’s Malice, a queer Sleeping Beauty re-telling shot through with social commentary, it’s the villain who finds something like salvation.
If you know Sleeping Beauty, you know to expect a curse. Walter sprinkles spinning wheels, thorns, and other snippets of the familiar story throughout in just the right amounts—but in Malice, the curse doesn’t plague just one princess.
When the ruler Leythana helped the Fae of Etheria defeat their enemies the Vila, the Fae granted her the bordering land as her queendom, a blessed reign, and golden-blooded semi-magical beings called the Graces in thanks.
The Vila were less pleased, and one of the few remaining placed a curse on Leythana’s line, affecting every one of her descendants. Each of Briar’s princesses is doomed to die on her 21st birthday unless she finds the salvation of—what else?—true love’s kiss. She must then marry her savior, who of course must be a man (allegedly so she can continue the line, but it’s made clear that the rule has a healthy dose of homophobia mixed in as well).
Briar’s queendom is a refreshing departure from the norm of older and even some more recent fantasy stories—but in a realm once defined by the strength of a woman’s leadership, Briar’s queens are quickly losing power to their husbands, including Aurora’s conniving father.
When Aurora does find her true love in protagonist Alyce, the Dark Grace, her family is predictably displeased. Then, there’s the fact that Alyce is part Vila: the only known surviving remnant of the people who rose up against the Etherians.
The guilt Alyce grapples with over her possible shared ancestry with the Vila who cast Aurora’s curse exists in terrible tension with the pain of how she is treated for that same ancestry. She has only the barest knowledge of her own history, all of it shaded by the hatred of the humans and Etherians. Malice illustrates the kind of prejudice that arises when the violent victors write history, gilding what is convenient and erasing the rest—including the nuance and stories of those who are defeated.
At times throughout Malice, Alyce makes major revelations and faces serious questions, only to tuck them away until they’re relevant again, a somewhat unbelievable dynamic for a character who’s clearly a champion brooder. The story packs the majority of its action into the last third, which can make the early chapters seem to pass slowly. While the social commentary is generally astute, there are moments when it feels more bludgeoning than biting.
Living in a society that’s learned to be terrified and repelled by her deviant existence, Alyce has been ostracized, reviled, and tortured since birth. Her magic is called into service only for spite, reinforcing the self-hatred she has learned is her birthright. Some of her greatest tormentors are those closest to her in nature, those she might expect to be in league with: the Graces.
Although both the plot and the flap copy of Malice hinge on the romance between Alyce and Aurora—and it is truly lovely—the implications and complications of the Grace system are arguably the most compelling part of the story.
Although they enjoy balls, finery, and high social status, the Graces are subjugated—and outside Briar’s Common District, Alyce is the only one below them. Their powers are harnessed by Briar’s petty and narcissistic upper classes until their abilities and celestial beauty Fade away in a “silvering” process reminiscent of the total loss of purpose that our culture considers menopause to be. Throughout the story, Walter repeatedly raises questions of the value attributed to a compliant sort of magical femininity—and the danger raised by a more deviant version.
The Graces are forced into competition with one another, and must use their own blood to perform their magic. Laws govern how they can use their gifts and therefore, their bodies. The space they occupy in Briar’s society feels analogous to something between how our culture regards celebrity and sex work. The Grace Laws, a code ostensibly designed to protect them that ultimately serves to harm them, capture a dynamic recognizable in our own world in the Nordic model of sex work regulation, which sex workers assert does far more harm than good.
The realities of Grace life are a vital thread of the story, complicating the way readers might see Grace characters like Rose and Laurel, and their cruelties toward Alyce. Similarly to the way that white, cisgender gay people have clawed their way to the middle by distancing themselves from Black and brown, and trans and gender nonconforming queer people whose identities are not so easily assimilated into mainstream society, the Graces snub Alyce to secure their station. This painful contradiction forms the backbeat of the story, and though it is highlighted in some interactions, Malice would have benefitted from bringing it to the fore more often.
One of Malice’s greatest strengths is its portrayal of the longterm effects of trauma. Walter weaves Alyce’s memories of the brutal experiments she suffered as a child at the hands of the Etherian Endlewild and others tightly into the story. These experiences are integral to both her major decisions and her everyday life, but she rarely mentions the tumult within her to anyone else. When she meets the mysterious Kal, he draws her to him with the kind of manipulative tactics common to abusers, praising her and degrading her in the same breath, promising she will never be as understood as she is with him.
She also carries the suffering of Vila before her—quite literally—and its weight contributes to her eventual breaking point.
Throughout all of Malice there are references to dragons in idioms like “Dragon’s teeth and, “Thank the dragon,” enough so that I wondered while reading when an actual dragon might appear. They seem more mythic than anything else, symbols scattered through a kingdom that long ago lost the thread of why they mattered, but still weaves them into everything from its fabrics to its language.
As it turns out, Alyce herself has been the dragon all along. Even as she works to envision a future in a world that has only scorned her, for the sake of a woman she can barely, breathlessly allow herself to love. Her struggle to trust Aurora will be familiar to anyone who has ever cautiously regarded the affections of someone whose sincerity and privilege make them both naïve and bold.
Even so, I was enchanted by Alyce’s wary awe as she came to feel safe for the very first time in her life—so much so, that I forgot I already knew the ending of this story. And as she watches her fleeting happiness crumble around her, it seems Alyce feels similarly. I may have forgotten the ending of the original story in lieu of imagining the future Malice seems briefly to promise for these characters—but when it finally does come time for Alyce to wage her war, it feels preordained all the same.
The dark fairytale re-telling has become an established fantasy sub-genre in its own right, and Malice’s sweet lesbian love story and bitter realities are a more than worthy addition.
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