I love a good book about a misogynist religious dystopia. For real. It’s one of my favorite genres. I think it’s because I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 13 and it made an indelible impression on me.
I also love speculative fiction where people have magical powers. That’s why the description of The Grace Year by Kim Liggett first caught my eye. It’s a story about a highly religious society that sent their 16 year old girls into the wilderness for a year to release their magic before returning to get married.
Dystopia, misogyny, religion, and magic all in one book? What’s not to love about that?
Turns out I loved nearly everything about the book. I blazed through it in under 24 hours then got sad because it was over.
The book takes place in a primitive world that has vaguely Scandinavian overtones. The closed-off society the protagonist Tierney James lives in follows a religion with a Christian vibe, but more Puritan than Evangelical. Women who disobey are often sentenced to death. Women who do obey can become wives when they turn 16. Or, if they’re not chosen as brides, they go become laborers or are cast out to become prostitutes in the encampment outside of the walls of the main society.
But first, the girls must be dispatched to an island to release their magic in a year-long ordeal that is shrouded in secrecy. Women never speak of their grace years so the girls only know that they are being sent away and may not survive to return.
That’s all I can tell you about this story without spoiling the rest of the book.
From the outset or the story, Tierney is a likable character who is buffeted by the forces of her society. Each time she thinks she can wrest back some control of her life, she is dragged back to heel by someone or something stronger than she is. She’s easy to root for and readers will enjoy her earnest desire to not make her fellow female exiles her rivals. For all her good intentions, she isn’t a Mary Sue who’s too sweet for the circumstances. Tierney is no optimist and she knows when to cut her losses and look out for number one.
Tierney’s grace year experience manages not to drag into tediousness, even as she has to literally struggle to stay alive in a hostile environment. Liggett manages to convey the urgency of the fight against the wilderness without lingering over the minutia of the skills for survival.
The supporting characters have depth and complexity as well, leaving all the relationships in the book equally deep and satisfying to experience.
One element of this book that struck a chord in me was the idea that change is a legacy process that happens over generations, handed from mother to daughter. Liggett doesn’t tell the story of a revolution here, however satisfying it might have been to see Tierney burn it all down. While the ending is indisputably hopeful, it is also an ending only of Tierney’s grace year story, not the end of the change for the world she inhabits.
This is the kind of book, which like The Handmaid’s Tale, could shape a young woman’s view of the world and literature. Read it yourself and share it with younger readers as well.