Book Review: “Bryony and Roses” by T. Kingfisher

Blurb & Info

Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.

But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?

Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she — or the Beast — are swallowed by them.

Published: May 18, 2015

Publisher: Argyll Productions

Pages: 216

Series: standalone

Review

This review contains minor spoilers for Bryony and Roses.

I read Ursula Vernon’s graphic novel, Digger, as an adolescent and was completely overwhelmed by it, so please imagine my joy when I discovered last year that she also wrote under the name T. Kingfisher. I have resolved to read my way through her entire backlist — hopefully, that will take years, since I don’t want to run out of material anytime soon. Bryony and Roses is one of Kingfisher’s snarky-yet-heartfelt fairytale re-tellings, much like The Raven and the Reindeer (which I have reviewed here) and focuses on reimagining Beauty and the Beast.

This review is… difficult, however.

Bryony has all the trademarks of a Kingfisher heroine: she is very good at a specific skill, and is written in such a way that she is allowed to be messy (as in, covered with dirt, sweat, and overall inelegant materials that are presented in a distinctly non-endearing way), and generally flawed as a person while still being kind-hearted, brave, and compassionate. She’s very reminiscent of Mona, the protagonist from Kingfisher’s 2020 release, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (which I have reviewed here). I like Bryony; she’s a complex character, and I was cheering for her every page of the way through this slender little book. I like how Kingfisher allows her to make stupid mistakes through the narrative, and how she’s flawed and distinctly imperfect — but sometimes, I felt like those mistakes didn’t match Bryony’s cleverness and were forced for the sake of the plot.

In a similar vein, there is a small, small segment of Bryony and Roses which justifies a content warning for depiction of the aftermath of a suicide, which I felt was completely unnecessary. The existence of this extremely minor character does not advance the plot in any way, the single scene that poofs her into and then out of the narrative could easily have been omitted, and there certainly did not need to be the depiction of the aftermath of a suicide. I am very, very irked and feel that the scene was inserted purely for shock value. I want to be wrong, however. I like Kingfisher’s writing and I don’t want to see this kind of thing from her. Maybe I’m just being picky and overly sensitive to depictions of suicide, however, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

As Bryony “untangles the secrets of the house” (from the synopsis) she takes action and figures things out; she is not a passive character. Nevertheless, there is a limit to how much she is able to puzzle out without help, and toward the end of the book there are several big info-dumps where the mystery is solved and explained. This works, technically speaking, but I would have enjoyed the book more if Bryony (and we as readers alongside her) could have figured out more of the mystery on her/our own without another character holding us by the hand and patiently explaining it all.

However, back on the subject of things that I enjoyed, I loved how Kingfisher inserts her trademark humor into the narration, which gives it a spice reminiscent of Terry Pratchett but still being recognizably its own thing, and adds a lot of real-world practicality into a fairytale about a transformed nobleman held captive with an enchanted rose.

“What do you know about roses?” [the Beast said.]

Bryony exhaled. “They’re a lot more trouble than they’re worth… they get black spot and mildew and cankers and rust. I don’t know why anyone bothers with the fancy types. They smell nice, sure, but they take ten times as much work as anything else in the garden. I prefer sages. Nothing bothers a sage.”

“Or a rutabaga?”

“Don’t talk to me about rutabagas,” said Bryony grimly.

(All of the above is true, by the way; roses are extremely finnicky plants).

I loved the action scenes as well. Kingfisher has a talent for making the same magic system change from whimsical to sinister in the blink of an eye, and I adored the enchanted manor house’s personality. It’s different from the anthropomorphized clock, candlestick, and tea set of the older Disney movie, and dances along the knife’s edge between charming and creepy. I never knew what to expect!

Overall, this was a decent book, but far from a great one. I still plan to keep working my way through Kingfisher/Vernon’s backlist, however, and I have my fingers crossed that I will find more enthralling reads.

⭐⭐⭐ out of five stars

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