Regular readers of my blog will know that I have a love for fairy tale retellings of kinds. Quite a while back, I read Hodge’s debut novel, Cruel Beauty. Frankly, I hated it. The characterization was dreadful, the storyline was choppy, the love triangle was nonsensical, and there wasn’t a single character I liked. Plus, she mixed in a lot of references to Greek/Roman gods without ever really clarifying if we were in a universe where those gods are real…????
But still. I came across a review for Crimson Bound, and it sounded interesting. I found myself thinking about how important first impressions can be for authors. If I read a book by an author, and I love that book, I will begin wading through the rest of their books – even if the next two or three are absolute duds. But what if I had read one of the duds first? Then I would never have read another book by that author, meaning I would never find the book by them that I actually love.
So. All that to say that I decided to give Hodge a second chance, hoping that she learned from her first novel. Overall, I liked Crimson Bound a lot more than Cruel Beauty. For starters, it actually made sense. At the end of the day, it’s a 3.5/5 read for me, and I’m not sure whether or not I’ll try another of Hodge’s books or not.
Rachelle is the protagonist of our story. She lives in a world that was once ruled by the Devourer and his servants, the forestborn. Years ago, the Devourer was partially defeated, but now he is growing in power yet again. The Great Forest, home of the forestborn, exists alongside the real world, invisible to most. But one day Rachelle finds herself in the Great Forest, face to face with a forestborn. Rachelle yearns to be a heroine, and risks everything to find out from this forestborn how the Devourer can be defeated – and she loses everything in the process.
The forestborn can mark a human. From that moment onward, the human has a choice – they must kill someone within three days, or the marked person himself will die. Rachelle does kill someone (we find out more about this as the story progresses), which means she is transformed from a human into a bloodbound, a sort of in-between stage that can last a few weeks or several years before a human fully transitions into a forestborn.
All of this sounds quite complicated, and there were moments were the story was bogged down a little by the explanations, but by and large Hodge does a good job of weaving her worldbuilding naturally throughout. Rachelle chooses to enter into service of the king – he is willing to withhold the death sentence automatically placed on every bloodbound, if that bloodbound is willing to work for him, protecting the kingdom form other evil creatures that bleed through from the Great Forest into the real world. The main part of the story takes place a few years after Rachelle has become a bloodbound, at a time when she knows the Devourer is planning to take over the world soon. Rachelle is still desperate to stop him.
I was really quite engaged in this story. I liked Rachelle a lot, and there was actually quite a bit of depth as the characters wrestle with whether or not something is always wrong/bad, or if there are exceptions to certain rules. This was done thoughtfully and well. There is a bit of a love triangle, but it wasn’t just there for drama – in this instance, it made sense, increasing the pressure on Rachelle to choose not just between two guys, but to choose between right and wrong, between dark and light, good and evil.
It’s a book about choices, and how we struggle to make the choice in front of us to the best we can, even though we’re hampered by the fact that we can’t always see what those choices are going to do down the road. And while Hodge doesn’t exactly come out and say it, there is a strong message that sometimes we have to make our choices before they are choices: choose our truth, our rightness, before we come to that crossroads.
I get a little weirded out when fantasy books try to also include religion. This book at a lot of what was sort of like Catholicism, except it was basically one of the people who almost defeated the Devourer instead of Jesus, so it felt kind of awkward at times. I wasn’t completely convinced that the religion aspect flowed into the rest of the story all that well.
There were several places where the story seemed to drag a bit; it felt like there could have been some editing, and the parallel story of how the Devourer was partially defeated in the past felt, at times, a bit weird, as it was randomly inserted at the beginning of various chapters. The love story was weak at times – I wasn’t really 100% convinced of Rachelle’s affection for the person she chooses. Still, this book was far, far better than Cruel Beauty. In this story, Hodge has created characters who had flaws and made bad decisions, yes, but were still likable and relatable. While I didn’t care at all about the characters in Cruel Beauty or what happened to them, I was definitely rooting for Rachelle throughout, even when she made bad choices.
On the whole, I do recommend this read if you enjoy fairy-tale-esq stories, and I’ll be keeping an eye on the synopses of Hodge’s future books to see if another one catches my eye.