One more time for the back row!
**SPOILERS WARNING, read at your own risk**
Since I know there are some people who enjoy video book reviews and some who enjoy written reviews, I will offer up both as an option. It is easy to miss things in a video review as well, especially if you’re not going off a script, which I am not. I think there’s merit in describing the books as you remember them with those major plot points as conversational stand outs. That said, I feel in retrospect that I may have missed out on some critical character elements, particularly for Harper, so let’s backtrack and do a written discussion of Brigid Kemmerer’s The Cursebreaker trilogy. The series consists of three books, of which you can purchase via Amazon here along with Brigid’s other books.
- A Curse So Dark and Lonely
- A Heart So Fierce and Broken
- A Vow So Bold and Deadly
Summary of A Curse So Dark and Lonley:
Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year, Prince Rhen, the heir of Emberfall, thought he could be saved easily if a girl fell for him. But that was before he turned into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. Before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.
Nothing has ever been easy for Harper. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, Harper learned to be tough enough to survive. When she tries to save a stranger on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s pulled into a magical world.
Break the curse, save the kingdom.
Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. A prince? A curse? A monster? As she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.
I don’t think there is any need to summarize the other two books, just this first one to introduce us into the world. And the world is pretty good– I think that YA Fantasy fans looking for this universe to revolutionize the world will be in for disappointment. However, if you are a 14-16 year old teenager and this is your first taste into YA Fantasy, I think you will be very happy.
YA Fantasy has become very broad in the depths of the worlds it builds and the intensity of the characters and how graphic the sex. For example, Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series features some of the most tingly sex scenes in Book 2 that I’ve ever read in YA fiction. It’s older YA, that’s for sure, but books don’t typically categorize themselves as Upper YA or Lower YA. It’s just children’s fiction because that’s what gets purchased, I guess. Therefore, I really think that Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker series finds itself a nice home in the Lower-Mid YA (14+) as opposed to Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead, which also came out last year (pending its own review soon here on PopLurker) which I would age as 12+ – the stakes are very low.
As I state in my video review, linked above, there is a trend in publishing to represent everyone. Every culture deserves to have its story told. People of all colors, creeds, and abilities need to have their time to shine. And dammit, let’s hear stories that fit right into that ever popular Twitter hashtag #OWNVOICES!!!
Please don’t misunderstand– I don’t say this in a patronizing way. But of course, with authenticity and providing opportunities for people of all kinds to tell their stories, publishers want to check boxes. The more boxes you can check, the better chance for your book to be published. So, when our hero Harper was introduced to the reader as a young woman born with Cerebral Palsy, I was a bit dubious and hopeful that this wasn’t a gimmick or a box getting checked. In the first two books, Harper has a limp but is otherwise free of some of the symptoms associated with CP. By book three, we’re finally shown how she moves, what her limitations are in terms of her physical training (because this chick ain’t no damn delicate princess, she’s a warrior babe!)
Brigid Kemmerer is very good at writing distinct characters, even better at writing teenagers (which we will discuss when I review her slice of life YA books), and building worlds where characters and motivations intertwine. With the Cursebreaker series, the stories are very digestible. Book One, Harper (an unlikely hero) breaks the curse and falls in love with the prince, even though she has some sexual tension with Grey, the royal commander who is secretly Prince Rhen’s older half brother, secretly the crown prince, and also a Magesmith. Because of the curse that was placed upon Rhen and his kingdom, Grey (using some sort of magic) comes out of their medieval fantasy setting and into Washington, DC in order to bring back ladies who might be the ones to break the spell. (Hey, this is a Beauty and the Beast reimagining, after all).
Prince Rhen and Harper come up with this elaborate lie that she is the Princess of Disi (which becomes less and less funny as the story goes on) and try to rally his people into having hope that their kingdom will be saved, they won’t go to war with neighboring kingdom Syhl Shallow, and so on. While cursed (by an enchantress named Lilith), Rhen took on a monster form that destroyed his family, killed the king, and basically made this world have no order. This is where the construction of Emberfall is a little bit weak, because I don’t understand what these people were doing while their kingdom, or at least the castle, was cursed for however many years. Sure, over in Syhl Shallow Queen Karis Luran was a violent psychopath, but at least she was ever-present. In one of the books, Lilith even said that she used to work with Karis Luran. I’ll take a side quest book about their adventures together as crazy royal biker babes or something.
By book two, the curse is broken and Grey is on the run after discovering his magic. Because of the curse and the torment Lilith inflicted onto Rhen, he is terrified of magic. Grey knows that if Rhen finds out about his magic and that he is the crown prince, Rhen will do terrible things to him, which he does. Meanwhile, readers head to Syhl Shallow to meet Karis Luran’s daughter Lia Mara and Nolla Verin. Lia Mara is the older daughter and becomes Gray’s love interest. While I have no problem with Lia Mara because I see what Kemmerer was trying to accomplish with her (creating a sensible, smart, very regular young woman for the reader to impose themselves onto), many people say that Lia Mara is boring.
I don’t personally think that Lia Mara is boring– I think she’s smart and gentle. She just wants peace in her kingdom, yet at the end of book two she is the queen after killing her mother. Granted, Mama Karis Luran was never a big fan of Lia Mara and it was very likely that she would have killed her own mother. Nolla Verin, the younger sister and the ‘Azula’ figure in the book (meaning she was raised to be the next in line to take the throne after the death of her mother and was trained as a strong as ruthless warrior) is now at her sister’s side and while she gives her own orders and undermines her older sister, she still respects Lia Mara and loves her. I’d have liked to see more development from Nolla Verin because I think she’s a cool character.
By book three, we are introduced to sex scenes, I still can’t fully visualize Iizak, and we have an impending and looming war. However, we start seeing Grey and Rhen missing each other, which is good, so we know that they won’t be the ones to destroy each other. But who will? Well… let’s just bring Lilith back!
The return of Lilith, in spite of the fact that I thought she came back in the second book, is what simultaneously makes A Vow So Bold and Deadly both aged up and aged down at the same time. As stated, we have sex scenes! They are very tame, very tasteful, and not at all graphic. But these scenes do in fact exist. There is a pivotal scene in the book where, after Rhen and Harper have sex for the first (maybe only?) time, Lilith attacks the castle and slaughters everyone. Well, nearly everyone– there is a new character who goes by Chesleigh who is a Syhl Shallow traitor in disguise (previously named Ella who performed some sort of mutiny against Lia Mara?) Harper and Zo escape the castle, they’re riding away on a horse, and Zo is torn off the horse.
It’s a massacre on a huge scale, leaving Harper lost and Rhen badly inured. He even thinks Harper is dead. When it’s all a big “Just kidding we’re all okay, the Chesleigh character who you’re told is a traitor was a traitor in the opposite direction and saved everyone!” Therefore, Zo, Freya, her children, and all of the castle teacups, wardrobes, and figurative talking candlesticks are okay.
In my review video, I compare the ending of this book to the ending of the early 2000s reboot of Battlestar Galactica– the entire show is this huge space chase of Humans vs. Cylon, with an impending war that the viewer is reminded of throughout the whole series. Suddenly, at the end– bam, the premise is dropped. It wasn’t about the war, it was about the characters. I feel that’s what we have going on here in the Cursebreaker series. Once Harper runs to Grey and asks him for help (which is somewhat cruel because she’s assuming he can’t say no to her, not considering that he might be changed, obligated to something else, or even in love with another woman) Grey softens, wants to rescue Rhen from Lilith’s clutches again, and everything culminates peacefully. These three young rulers just want to hang out, so there’s no war.
In an adult centric world, we understand the intricacies of war and what it means to gather and rally and prepare troops like that. We understand (to some degree, even in a fantasy setting) the difficulties of having enough supplies to feed an army and what goes into training and readying these soldiers for war. Which is what proves that the Cursebreaker series really is for teens in the 14+ range. Those boring adult logistical things just don’t matter. All that matters is that these character who we love were going to destroy each other and now they’re not. Lilith was Rhen’s kill in the monster form that she had originally cursed onto him. Only one character died and it was Iizak, the other magical winged creature. I personally thought this was an unfortunate loss because was seemingly the only magical being here other than Grey. That and he was a cool character, but that’s life.
There were too ways I thought this story would go, and I really hoped it would go with Loryn Prediction A. It went with Loryn Prediction B. B was the actual ending, which was Grey and Rhen restarting their relationship as brothers. By the end of the series, Rhen has completely lost his purpose. He will not become King, he does not rule Emberfall, there is literally nothing left for him. The story sort of reflects Woody’s storyline in Toy Story 4. So, what did Woody do in that movie once he no longer belonged in his world? He left it behind with Bo Peep. Instead, Grey tells Rhen he wants his counsel, so we can assume Rhen jumps in as a Royal Advisor of sorts.
But what I would have loved to see is a really sad and lonely moment where Rhen realizes his work her is done and asks Harper “What’s Washington DC like?”. Grey could bless an item with his increasingly strong magic (maybe a mirror or something as a nod to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) and then off they go– Rhen becomes a real boy, leaves fantasy world, and perhaps he could break Harper’s metaphorical curse that she had out there. I think that would have been a beautiful culmination.
Ultimately, I liked the Cursebreaker series. They were fun, digestible reads with characters I found interesting. The plot kept me engaged and I cared about what happened to the characters. The fact that I’m thinking of alternative storylines and endings isn’t a reflection of any shortcomings– it’s proof that Kemmerer created a rich world with great characters who I want to see moving around this chess board with bigger, grander, more-er adventures! I enjoyed and accepted the world Kemmerer created and had a nice time with the books. What else can you ask for in an addictive read?
I give the Cursebreaker Series by Brigid Kemmerer 3.5 out of 5 Lurks.
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