Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Wednesday, March 2, 2022: YA Maximum Shelf: This Vicious Grace

Wednesday Books: This Vicious Grace (Last Finestra #1) by Emily Thiede

Wednesday Books: This Vicious Grace (Last Finestra #1) by Emily Thiede

Wednesday Books: This Vicious Grace (Last Finestra #1) by Emily Thiede

Wednesday Books: This Vicious Grace (Last Finestra #1) by Emily Thiede

This Vicious Grace

by Emily Thiede

A teen girl chosen by the gods to defend her island from deadly demons must find a battle partner who can handle her magic in this YA debut by Emily Thiede. This Vicious Grace is a gloriously passionate fantasy with unfettered magic, high stakes and delightfully steamy banter. Its every chapter counts down to a climactic battle, making it an exciting, suspenseful read.

When the goddess Dea created humankind, the God of Chaos, Crollo, wanted to destroy it. Instead, Dea bargained with Crollo: he could send his minions to devour humans on a schedule he determined, but each of her islands would have divine protection. The guardians of the islands would be a pairing of magical warriors: the Finestra, chosen by Dea, and the Fonte, an individual "blessed at birth with defensive magic," who the Finestra would select. Together, the two would wield magic to defend their people.

But 18-year-old Alessa, the Finestra on the island of Saverio, struggles to control her power: instead of Alessa's touch augmenting a Fonte's magic as Dea had intended, it has been killing them. When Alessa accidentally kills her third Fonte in a row, suspicions rise that she is not the true Finestra. "Would Dea send a murderer to save us?" asks Ivini, a street preacher determined to incite violence against Alessa. Ivini's plan works: an assassination attempt, fueled by the sermon, almost succeeds.

Undaunted, Alessa is determined to choose and not kill a fourth Fonte. Her family was required to disclaim her when she was chosen as Finestra, and she won't let that sacrifice be wasted--she will not fail on Divorando, the day of her reign when Crollo will send his demons. However, Alessa knows the assassination attempts will continue as she searches, so she hires a bodyguard, Dante, who is "a wall of muscle," a "sculptor's masterpiece"--and a known murderer. Having a bodyguard, though, is a bit much for the Finestra, who now has a young man in her bedroom whom she can't kick out--though she does try. " 'You don't understand how bodyguards work,' " replies Dante to her dismissal. " 'See, I'--he pointed to himself--'guard your'--he pointed to her, tracing curves in the air--'body.' "

Unfortunately, time is running out, and so are Fontes. Most have fled Saverio and only five remain. In order to establish a successful Finestra/Fonte pairing, Alessa will have to break tradition. This fact, along with the emergence of a dangerous secret about Dante, pushes the people of Saverio ever closer to believing Ivini's ravings that Alessa must not have been sent by Dea. If Alessa cannot learn to use her magic before Divorando, it won't matter if the island wants her dead--she will simply be first in line to die.

Solitude is all Alessa has known since becoming Finestra almost five years ago, and the position prohibits her from being touched before Divorando. This theme of touch--the importance of physical contact--resonates movingly throughout and is strengthened by the lethality of Alessa's skin: "She would kill for a hug. Literally."

The chemistry between Alessa and Dante is immediate and captivating. "She'd sampled every flavor of loneliness" but Dante's presence changes that, "her isolation cut[ting] even deeper with a stranger filling spaces usually left empty." Thus Alessa, "hungry for any kind of connection," speaks easily with her bodyguard, in conversations rife with snarky, lewd and flirty banter. Dante is dangerously tempting, though, and "like an animal emerging from hibernation, ravenous and focused on one overriding need, she [can't] stop craving what she'd been denied for so long."

This Vicious Grace is a luminescent fantasy with impeccable worldbuilding (an immersive Italian-inspired shoreline setting), a delightfully sharp-witted cast and a ravishingly provocative romance. Throughout it all, the subtle ways in which Thiede allows her fantasy to reflect the real world are impressive, smart and add to her characters' humanity. Alessa's family had laughed about her "busy brain," a restlessness she doesn't find funny, that keeps her pacing for hours and feels "like her skin had shrunk in the wash and would never fit again." Dante, who knows what the rules would say about him, encourages Alessa to be bold, and not to follow "holy nonsense" written by mortal men when "the thing that scares men with power most is a woman with more of it." She and Dante live in a world that alienates them for being different, allowing readers who feel misunderstood to see themselves here--to see the beauty in their own individuality. This Vicious Grace, the first in a planned duology, is impossible to forget--a superb and captivating YA fantasy with wit, charm and a romance readers will swoon over. --Samantha Zaboski

Wednesday Books, $18.99, hardcover, 448p., ages 13-up, 9781250794055, June 28, 2022

Wednesday Books: This Vicious Grace (Last Finestra #1) by Emily Thiede

Emily Thiede: The Power of Quiet Strength

(photo: Jen Fariello)

Emily Thiede, a former public school teacher, teaches creative writing and serves on the board of Writer House, her local writing nonprofit in central Virginia. She is co-host of the Basic Pitches podcast, and an alumnus of Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match. Her debut YA fantasy, This Vicious Grace (Wednesday Books, June 28, 2022), is about an 18-year-old girl whose magical gift, intended to enhance that of a partner in battle, keeps killing them instead.

The Finestra is required to disassociate from their family and instead belongs to the community. What was the idea behind this?

The idea for This Vicious Grace started with the question, "What if a girl couldn't touch anyone without killing them?" I expanded on that to create the global stakes (What if she had to touch people to save the world?) and the personal/emotional stakes (What if this problem didn't just cut her off from physical touch, but from all forms of connection?). By creating a character like Alessa, who desperately wants companionship and to figure out who she is, and placing her in a society that demands she sacrifice her individuality and former life, it's immediately clear to readers that something must change. From a storytelling perspective, this creates so much room for Alessa to grow. She examines her own beliefs, builds relationships and deconstructs the rules and expectations that cause her so much heartache.

There is no pretense of love in the Finestra/Fonte pairing. What made you take this route instead of depicting characters forced into a façade of happily ever after?

One thing I love about fantasy is the freedom to discard elements of our world. I liked the idea of a society where the most powerful people don't inherit their power, nor can they pass it on to their descendants, so there's no dynastic motivation to their relationship. Instead, they're paired up as a symbol of how partnership and collaboration make society stronger, and because romantic love isn't necessary for that, it would almost undermine that message if they were expected to be in love.

Alessa's touch can kill, which makes connection--especially physical connection--a recurring theme in the story. What moved you to write about this?

I studied developmental psychology in college and was fascinated by research on the importance of touch and social interaction for brain development. The idea that people don't just want human connection, both emotional and physical, but that we need it, deeply impacted me. Many of those studies are heartbreaking, and I can't go back in time to change that, but Alessa's story gave me the opportunity to rewrite the ending for one girl at least.

Given how isolated Alessa is from family and friends, why is she able to trust that her attraction to Dante is for him and not simply a desire for connection?

Such a good question, and one Dante ponders as well. He's not just being noble when he challenges her motivations for pursuing him--he wants to be sure and wants her to be sure that she's thinking it through. It's also why I worked so hard to map out their relationship and make sure every new stage feels earned, including moments when Alessa truly sees and appreciates aspects of Dante that he often doesn't even realize he's revealed. And while Alessa establishes other relationships throughout the story that ease her isolation, her feelings for Dante only grow stronger.

This is a YA novel that isn't shy to be steamy. How did you walk that line between coming-into-adulthood and adulthood, particularly in those heated interactions?

As a parent of young daughters, I've thought about this a lot, and for me, the distinction has less to do with the content itself and more to do with the lens used to show it. After all, Alessa is 18, an age when many people leave home for the first time, form new relationships and seek out romantic partners, and young readers are curious about what those experiences can look like. Books like This Vicious Grace, where characters who care about and respect each other openly discuss consent and make informed decisions, can be a safe place to indulge that curiosity. And, as someone who vividly remembers being in classrooms full of high schoolers giggling at Shakespeare's innuendoes, I'm confident teen readers can handle it.

Why did you decide to create a strong female lead whose magic was primarily intended to augment someone else's power?

Our culture tends to idolize a certain type of strength--bold, visible, individualistic heroes who perform great feats without needing help--while undervaluing that of people like teachers, therapists, coaches, editors and parents, who apply their skills toward nurturing others or helping them be greater than they could be alone. It's less flashy, more collaborative and much harder to show on a movie poster, but that's strength, too. Alessa has the ability to enhance a partner's magic so she can protect those with less power. I think that's incredible.

The story's conflict deals heavily with a street preacher's insistence that Alessa be killed, as she is the first Finestra known to kill a Fonte. What message did you hope to convey via this plot element about fearing someone who doesn't embody tradition?

It wasn't until after I finished writing This Vicious Grace that I realized how much of Alessa's story was an accidental metaphor for my journey with late-diagnosed ADHD, but like Alessa, I know what it's like to struggle with doing things the way other people do. Everyone around Alessa prioritizes tradition over her individual needs, and because of that, they're all paying a steep price. But differences aren't weaknesses, and while tradition can be valuable, it's just as important to give individuals the respect and freedom they need to exercise their unique strengths.

You include Italian proverbs throughout the story; which was your favorite?

Belle parole non pascono i gatti (Fine words don't feed cats). It basically means that flowery speeches don't solve problems, and it paints the perfect picture in my head: a disgruntled housecat, utterly unimpressed at the owner trying to placate them with words while ignoring the crisis of an empty food bowl.

And, finally, as a reader, do you like when love interests connect early, or when they have to wait?

I love a slow burn! It's just so satisfying when the tension builds little by little, scene by scene, until you want to scream, "Just kiss already!" --Samantha Zaboski

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