In a country of constant peace and abundance, what’s the point in changing anything? "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," right? But how often do we stunt progress simply because we’re content and/or cannot be bothered to ask questions?
Ashley Poston explores this and more in her adorable novel Among the Beasts and Briars, which follows Cerys—daughter of Aloriya's royal gardener and best friend of Princess Anwen—on a quest to save the kingdom from a woodland curse.
Cerys knows all too well the dangers of the wood—after all, it has taken loved ones from her and left her with a bit of the curse in her blood. But how far can magical blood and the annoying fox from the gardens get her? After all, she's just a gardener's daughter . . .
Genre: YA Fantasy; Fairytale
Category: Cozy Read
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Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
First off, can we take a moment to appreciate the beauty of this cover? In my opinion, it's one of the prettiest ones from 2020, and I thought the title poetic. I'd been dying to read this book ever since I saw the artwork. But there's more to love about Among the Beasts and Briars than the cover.
Like the beautiful map inside! I am a sucker for them; they add an extra bit of magic to a story, making them feel more real.
Physical aesthetic aside, the premise and imagery are chock-full of fairytale vibes, making this a great choice if you're looking for an easy, quick, cozy read. I adore the opening—a tale of the First King of Aloriya, told in fairytale format—and how it ends by stating this "history" is a lie. This sets the tone and gives the book a strong start.
From there, we're quickly introduced to Cerys and her relationships with those closest to her.
Cerys’s relationship with her father is adorable. It’s nice to see a supportive, living parental figure in YA. I loved that Cerys is totally fine with the idea of him mingling, moving on from her mother. She observes the chemistry between him and another male, and gently yet enthusiastically encourages it. The way he blushes and lights up at this made my heart swell. While short, this scene is precious and meaningful to society on so many levels.
There's also Fox, Cerys's furry companion who loves annoying her and getting into trouble . . . like accidentally turning into a human when the curse descends. I love how Poston uses Fox’s altered reality and senses to describe Cerys. Not only does it make sense, as he is comparing before and after, but he also describes her in more detail and love than she does herself. It’s cute yet pitiful seeing him get acquainted with his awkward, overly large new body, with all the words and thoughts in his head. Plus he calls Cerys "Daisy" for his own sweet reasons.
Fox might have been my favorite character. Aside from being adorable and the comedic relief, he grew the most over the course of the story.
That's not to say Cerys doesn't grow. In fact, in one of my favorite parts, Cerys arrives at the neighboring kingdom of Voryn, and upon glimpsing their more equitable society, begins questioning aspects of Aloriya. What’s more is how she questions herself for never wondering about these things before. It also speaks to our society and women’s role within it.
“How did they know what they could be if no one told them what they couldn’t?” -Cerys upon seeing women in various roles
"I never questioned the legends. And the more I saw of Voryn, the more of a fool I felt."
Unfortunately, for all that I loved about this book, there were things that made me feel it hadn't reached its full potential as a story.
I found a handful of grammar and formatting flubs: missing words, typos, clunky wording, etc. Two examples: calling a river "swift" and "slow" in the same paragraph, and telling the reader a character shut a door in two consecutive sentences.
And then there were a few issues I took with the plot / story itself . . .
I wish Cerys had been smarter and made better decisions. At times, she was naïve, whiney, and useless. I initially liked that she was “just a gardener’s daughter," but this loses its value after she states it multiple times. She could have become more of a force between having magical blood, two enchanted companions (wtf ever happened to Vala, anyways?!), and a potential familial connection to Voryn.
If only Poston hadn’t dropped the threads before they could really be woven; it would've added so much to the story.
When Cerys gets wind that her mother is potentially from Voryn and questions her father, he merely shakes it off like, “Ahh, ya know, your mother was pretty secretive.” And that just happens to be enough for him and Cerys both?
The way Cerys's mother comes to Aloriya, then to the rescue when Cerys is lost in the woods (knowing how to deal with the monsters), and how she kisses Cerys’s head (which arguably gave Cerys some level of protection from/in the wood—hello, Witch’s Kiss!) points to the idea that yes, Cerys’s mother was from Voryn and had access to magic / knowledge that would've been pretty effing useful, if you ask me. So why didn't she tell her husband or child any of this, especially if she left her home specifically with the goal of breaking the curse?
Not to mention that if this theory is correct, it would mean Cerys is the Grandmaster of Voryn’s granddaughter, on top of being the freaking savior . . . so wouldn’t she be a big deal in Voryn and have reason to go back, possibly even integrate into their society? Especially since she’s in love with a prince and presumably going to marry him? A consensual marriage would make a hell of a peace treaty.
It also would've been nice to have at least ONE scene with the Lady of the Wilds, considering she’d been trapped in the crown for centuries and is kind of a big deal to the story.
Wouldn’t it have made more sense—and done her justice—to allow her a scene or two, not only to be reunited with the world, but to give her account? I mean, if you’re going to start the book off by telling a story and calling it a lie, it makes sense that you should end the book by telling the correct history.
Even if readers understand the major nuances of what happened between Aloriya and Voryn, there is no real detail given, making the story and world fall a bit flat for me. So much texture and dimension could have been added to both, but instead the ending feels lazy and unsatisfying. Part of me felt like Poston had strong ideas about the beginning and ending of the story, but not so much the middle, or at the very least struggled with its execution. I’d have liked to see SOME resolution/epilogue explaining how these two kingdoms fared in the end.
Because there are questions that could be answered and explored, as well as places on the map that were never visited, I hope this is merely the beginning and Poston has something in store for us in the future. However, all signs point to this being a standalone.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a charming, enchanting read to cozy up to. While there were a few things that bothered me, they weren't enough to put me off the story. It also contains themes that could be useful to readers young and old. And, as I said at the beginning, the cover is gorgeous and would make a beautiful addition to any bookshelf.