As the latest in a long line of Finestras, Alessa Paladino’s gift from the gods should magnify her Fonte partner’s magical abilities making it possible for the pair to combat the demons that threaten the island of Saverio. Every Finestra and her suitor face the Divorando and its hoard of attacking demons during their time–usually working together to end the cycle before retiring and waiting to train the next Finestra.
Instead, Alessa has had three ceremonial weddings and three funerals for each Fonte–all killed by her touch. Reviled by the city, under threat from her own soldiers, Alessa’s situation is dire even without the looming threat of the next Divorando.
Desperate to stay alive, Alessa hires Dante–an outsider marked as a killer–who is willing to keep Alessa alive for enough coin.
Working with Dante, Alessa begins to understand more about her powers and how she might be able to use them without killing her suitor. But with Divorando approaching and demons at the gates, it is Dante’s secrets that might tear Saverio apart in This Vicious Grace (2022) by Emily Thiede.
This Vicious Grace is the first book in a duology set in a world reminiscent of Renaissance Italy imbued with magic. Alessa is cued as white although there are varied skintones among the citizens of Saverio. In a society where marriages serve to enhance magic, the relationships Alessa forms are more reminiscent of political alliances than traditional marriages although it is worth noting that same sex marriages are welcome and seen as commonplace both for magic and romantic reasons.
Thin world building and ab abrupt start do little to situate the reader in the story although Alessa’s peril and her desperation are immediately palpable as she struggles to control her powers. This character-driven story focuses heavily on Alessa and Dante with banter, flirting and what could be seen as a slow-burn romance if only the main characters had more convincing chemistry. In other words, This Vicious Grace has a lot of pieces that make an entertaining fantasy for patient readers.
Unfortunately, Thiede also makes some strange creative choices including the use of antisemitic stereotypes that continue to give me pause.
Spoilers to follow:
This Vicious Grace has a rich but poorly explained magic system. According to the lore of Saverio, humans were created by the goddess Dea. Crollo, a rival god, wanted to destroy them. Rather than fight to the death, the gods agree to have a cycle of death and renewal: Crollo sends demons to attack the humans during an annual Divorando. Dea grants magical powers to the Fonte and, once in every generation, to a Finestra who can amplify the chosen Fonte’s magic thereby leaving Saverio better equipped to combat the demonic attacks.
As readers learn more about this world, Thiede also introduces the ghiotte–a group of demons disguised by Crollo as humans supposedly sent to find a healing fountain (the last of Dea’s gifts to help humanity survive the Divorando. These people are cast out and banished from Saverio. They are reviled. They are assumed to be evil, to be monsters, if they exist at all. By the end of the book readers find out the ghiotte do exist and that Dante is one of them. Furthermore, the ghiotte are “nearly invincible soldiers” who will be crucial in defeating Crollo.
I haven’t been able to find any primary source material from the author but it’s hard to ignore the similarities between the ghiotte–a people who is cast out but ultimately found to be those chosen by their god–and Jewish people who have been persecuted, driven out of their homes, and murdered throughout history in pogroms, in the Inquisition, and more recently in the Holocaust. Is this similarity intentional? I can’t confirm but it seems impossible for it to be accidental.
So on the one hand the portrayal of the ghiotte starts out terrible in This Vicious Grace but by the end it flips and it turns out they are crucial to Saverio’s future and will presumably be brought back into the fold in the next book in the series to defeat Crollo.
On the other hand, while positioning the ghiotte as this othered, feared group Thiede leans into antisemitic imagery that doubles down on hateful stereotypes. In addition to being described on the page as evil multiple times, there are also many instances throughout the book when characters wonder if the ghiotte look like demons. After his secret is revealed near the halfway mark, Dante is asked repeatedly if he has horns. This is dismissed as a joke for the most part but, again, brings to mind harmful portrayals of Jewish people in art with horns to underscore their supposed otherness and lack of humanity.
Again, I can’t find a lot of information about this. I can’t find anyone else equating the ghiotte with Judaism. Many of the other readers I spoke with about this book weren’t aware of the antisemitic history behind horned figures in art. So I don’t know how to feel about this title but, as a reviewer, I wanted readers to know.
You can read more about antisemitic stereotypes in art in “The Antisemitic Origin of Michelangelo’s Horned Moses” by Stephen Bertman (read the article) and in “The Horns of Moses: Old Symbols and New Meanings” by Norman Cohn (read the article).
For further context in 2019 changes were made to Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson (read my review) to correct the inclusion of this same antisemitic stereotype in finished copies of that title. You can find Rogerson’s tweets about that here: https://twitter.com/marrogerson/status/1093942185064570880
Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, The Other Side of the Sky by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin, The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen
*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*