Stain by A. G. Howard
Release date: January 2019
Once upon a nightmare, her fairy tale begins…
After Lyra—a princess incapable of speech or sound—is cast out of her kingdom of daylight by her wicked aunt, a witch saves her life, steals her memories, and raises her in an enchanted forest … disguised as a boy known only as Stain. Meanwhile, in Lyra’s rival kingdom, the prince of thorns and night is dying, and the only way for him to break his curse is to wed the princess of daylight, for she is his true equal. As Lyra rediscovers her identity, an impostor princess prepares to steal her betrothed prince and her crown. To win back her kingdom, save the prince, and make peace with the land of the night, Lyra must be loud enough to be heard without a voice, and strong enough to pass a series of tests—ultimately proving she’s everything a traditional princess is not.
Why I was interested:
It’s a retelling of The Princess and the Pea, and I love fairytale retellings.
This book was a trial for me. I loved it, but I almost quit on it a few times, because it was. So. Damn. Long. In the end I stayed up late and read the last 150 pages in one sitting. Firstly, because I knew I wouldn’t pick it up again if I didn’t just power through it. Secondly, because once I did get sucked back into the story, the pace picked up and all the action started to really happen. In my opinion, it’s more of a reimagining than a retelling, and it definitely also had some other fairytale vibes: The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella all come to mind.
If you love gorgeous descriptions, detailed worldbuilding, found families, fairytale retellings, and a meandering pace, this could be the book for you.
What I liked:
The writing was magical, and the descriptions were so evocative and detailed that I had a really clear picture of what this world looked like. Howard really managed to retain the whimsical Disney-esque fairytale atmosphere throughout the story. There wasn’t a single moment when I wasn’t completely absorbed and immersed in the world.
The mythology and history of the story and the characters was also immensely detailed, so it was an absolute thrill to watch as all the pieces fell into place. I thought the premise was fascinating: a world torn in two – one half lived on the surface in permanent sunlight, while the other half was dragged underground and lived in never ending night. As a concept it was hard to grasp, but the detailed descriptions really brought it to life for me.
My favourite part of the entire book was Lyra/Stain’s found family. They were such an odd bunch, and I felt like they didn’t really have as much time together as I would have liked thanks to a time jump. (That being said, without that time jump this would have been a much lengthier book, and it’s already huge.) Crony is a non-human harrower witch, Luce is a sylph who lost his wings, and Scorch is a winged horse. I really enjoyed their interactions with Lyra/Stain, and how they allowed her to grow and become the best version of herself.
I should probably say something more about the characters, but all I really want to do is call out Crony’s name. I don’t know why I loved her so much, but I did. I adored her. She’s quite ugly, and her accent/speech is kind of odd, and she has so many regrets, but she’s so full of love. She was the most vivid and complex character in this novel, and one of my favourite secondary characters. Ever.
All of the main characters in Stain were given a detailed backstory, which I really appreciated. I often feel a bit robbed in books with an amazing side cast because we don’t see enough of them, but that was not the case in this novel. While Lyra/Stain is the main character, Prince Vesper, Crony, Luce, Scorch and Aunt Griselda are all given plenty of page time (is that a thing? It’s like screen time, but in a book… Maybe it’s only me?)
Lastly, I wanted to comment briefly on the themes of this book. Obviously it’s about the family you make for yourself, but it’s also about embracing your scars and your experiences. One of the major take home messages for me was that your external appearance counts for very little because you can change that, so it is your character that makes the biggest impact on the world.
What I disliked:
It’s so damn loooong. Sometimes it was hard to pick it back up, because the pacing slowed to a halt at times. While the descriptions were great, there was a ton of them, and sometimes I really just wanted to get back to the actual plot.
That being said, if you can push through those lulls, then this is a really satisfying and emotionally charged story that is well worth reading.