Hello, everyone! Another day, another book review. On the docket today is Rosamund Hodge’s fairytale fantasy Crimson Bound. Hodge’s novel is difficult to review, as it’s neither a great book nor a terrible one, but it’s also not lackluster enough to be called mediocre. Crimson Bound soars in some parts, sags in others, and merely plods along for the rest. Perhaps its less of a storytelling failure than a failure of expectations. Slapping the words “based on the classic fairytale…” might make books like these fly off the shelves, but they can’t make the story within them worth reading.
Synopsis: Trained from an early age to be a charm-weaving woodwife, Rachelle is cast out of her village after she is marked by the demon-like forestborn and forced to kill her aunt in order to live. Years later, now a powerful bloodbound pressed into the king’s service, Rachelle is ordered to protect the king’s illegitimate son-turned-saint Armand and accompany him to the fabulous Chateau de lune. Unimpressed by Armand’s supposed saintliness, Rachelle focuses on trying to find the lost sword Joyeuse, the only weapon that can defeat the Devourer, a great evil threatening to drown the world in endless night. But as time runs out, Rachelle realizes that no one at court is who they seem to be, and her entire world turns upside down.
My take: Crimson Bound is hamstrung by deceptive marketing. The back cover claims that the book is inspired by “Little Red Riding Hood,” while in the acknowledgments Hodge says that her story is a combination of “Little Red” and the Grimm’s tale “The Girl Without Hands.” Having read both tales (and done a blog post on the latter), I find no traces of either classic tale in this novel. The only similarities between the three tales is that both “Little Red” and Crimson Bound feature a forest, and one of the characters in Crimson Bound has no hands. That’s where the similarities end.
In my eyes, a successful retelling of a classic source text like a fairytale or a myth should be both familiar and original. It should take the reader down an unfamiliar path that leads them to an expected destination, and somehow, the reader should still be surprised at where they end up. I’ve recently read 2 fantastic retellings of classic stories that did this (Song of Achilles and Circe), so I’m even more sensitive to a story that fails to accomplish this. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Crimson Bound isn’t a retelling, but its marketing creates expectations that the book never ends up fulfilling, which leaves the reader inevitably disappointed.
So if we ignore the deceptive marketing and judge the book on its substance, we have a somewhat original fantasy story weighed down by confusing magic lore and innumerable cultural references. The story takes place in the town of Rocamadour in the kingdom of Gévaudan, which is basically 17th century French in every single way. We have a king named something like Philipe-Auguste, a palace called Chateau de Lune, which by its Hall of Mirrors is clearly Versailles, and a cast of characters with names like Amélie, Armand, Erec d’Anjou, la Fontaine, etc. For me, seeing all of these casual references to French culture, without the characters themselves actually seeming in any way French, really rubbed me the wrong way. It was just like Hodge created a new kingdom out of a hodgepodge of stereotypical French things and called that world-building.
Yet the setting itself had no bearing on the plot. The book could have taken place in any fictional kingdom and the effect would have been the same. Other authors have managed to create half-historical/half fictional settings successfully because they incorporate elements of the real culture into the character’s personality. For instance, Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy is set in a semi-fictional medieval Russia, and it worked so well because she seamlessly combined pagan fantasy with a culture that had a long pagan history, and created characters who acted the way medieval Russian peasants would act. Hodge’s characters are far too modern for her setting, and the fantasy element clashes with her historical references, rather than complementing them.
Simply put, there’s just too much going on in this novel. Hodge pulls references from a million different places: a sword named Durendal, which comes from the French epic The Song of Roland, the terrifying lindenworm, which stems from Scandinavian folklore, an entire origin story inspired by the German fairy tale “The Juniper Tree,” the Wild Hunt, which has many origins in European lore, and the forestborn themselves, who are basically vampires. There’s no cohesion to the elements, and no way for Hodge’s original characters to shine through the mess. Throw in facile themes about the hypocrisy of organized religion and the cruelty of autocracy, and you have a novel which appears to say a lot of things, but that actually says very little.
Then, of course, there’s the obligatory love triangle between Rachelle, her mentor Erec d’Anjou (aka the bad boy), and her unwanted ward turned lover Armand (the nice guy). I’m still not sure after reading this book why either of them like Rachelle, and why she liked either of them. They’re all pretty flat stock characters. Rachelle is the typical new YA protagonist: tough, hates herself, still gorgeous even though she’s always sweaty and fighting people. Armand is about as interesting as a crepe. Erec d’Anjou was the only interesting one out of the three because he made surprising choices, but he was still weighed down by boilerplate bad boy tropes. I was completely uninvested in the love story, which meant I was uninvested in 2/3 of this book.
The one part I did enjoy in this book was the end. Not because it was over, though that was a relief, but because Hodge created a thrilling conclusion to her story. All the confusing pieces came together, the final battle was suspenseful, and the lore made sense. It made me see the virtue in Hodge’s writing, and imagine a different kind of book, one that was rooted in her own imagination, rather than the creations of others.
Final consensus: Crimson Bound had a lot of potential, but it was weighed down by the conventions of YA Romance and the fairytale retelling genre. The beautiful cover and marketing lured me into buying the book, but ultimately I was left unsatisfied by the story itself. If you’re looking for a fantasy series that successfully combines history and folklore, I can’t recommend The Winternight Trilogy enough. But when it comes to Crimson Bound, I’d skip it.