Adult Fantasy Debut A Crown of Ivy and Glass Features an Intriguing Setting But Weak Characters

Books Reviews Claire Legrand
Adult Fantasy Debut A Crown of Ivy and Glass Features an Intriguing Setting But Weak Characters

The past few years have seen several of the biggest names in YA fantasy make the leap into the adult market, from Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo to Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. Bestselling author Claire Legrand seems a natural choice to join this club, having already proven her skills in the YA genre at both suffocating horror (Sawkiller Girls, Exstasia) and sweeping fantasy (her truly excellent Empirium trilogy). But although Legrand has more than proven her range and skills as a storyteller, her transition to the world of adult fiction is quite a bit rockier than fans of her previous books might have hoped.

The first installment of Legrand’s new Middlemist trilogy, A Crown of Ivy and Glass, feels as though it should be a slam dunk. I mean, a story that is touted as being a mix of A Court of Thorns and Roses and Bridgerton has basically been created in a lab to appeal to me, specifically, as a reader. And, to be fair, the book does have quite a bit to recommend it, from its unique magical system to its fascinating worldbuilding and its commitment to depicting both chronic pain and mental health issues thoughtfully. But for a book that is supposedly an adult fantasy debut, its themes and characters can feel remarkably juvenile and generally lack the complexity that readers likely hope to find in a story like this. (Sadly, the only real “adult” aspect of the book is the inclusion of steamy sex scenes, some of which often seem to be there simply because there hasn’t been a sex scene in a while.)

The story follows Lady Gemma Ashbourne, whose family is Anointed, and both her father and her sisters are possessed of uniquely powerful magic. Gemma, herself, however, not only has no magical abilities to speak of, but the magic of others is actively hurtful to her, causing her tremendous pain wherever she goes. Often lonely and ill, Gemma also struggles with both panic attacks and an inclination to self-harm, driven by her feelings of inadequacy and her guilt that her sister Mara has been sent to guard the kingdom against the Middlemist in her place. The depiction of Gemma’s daily battles with chronic illness results in some of the book’s best scenes and it’s the sort of on-page representation this genre could use a lot more of.

Gemma finds herself drawn immediately drawn to Talan d’Astier, a foreign visitor who is seeking help from her father to redeem his family honor. Intrigued, Gemma proposes that she’ll help Talan navigate the ins and outs of high society and gain an audience with the queen if he assists her family in their ongoing feud with the neighboring Bask family. If this were all of the story, A Crown of Ivy and Glass might actually be better off—there’s something compelling about the competitive inter-family rivalry, and the prospect of Gemma’s grooming Talan to fit in with the rich and royal is fun.

But that’s…not exactly what we get. Sure, there’s some of that, although it’s ultimately buried under everything from complex family secrets and betrayals to demons and necromancers and terrifying creatures slinking through gaps in the Middlemist from another world. It’s a story that tries to do too much—at 500 pages it often feels like this could have been two different volumes entirely—particularly when the plot undergoes a significant change in direction (and becomes much more traditionally magical) about halfway through. 

Gemma is childish, vain, and spoiled for most of the story, and the Chosen One tropes surrounding her are not particularly subtle. (That she, despite her many childish and self-centered choices, is somehow also still the only one who can battle the forces of evil is…certainly something!) Her romance with Talan borders on insta-love territory, and gets very little time to really develop anything like nuance. Though Legrand pokes at some interesting ideas of control and dependence thanks to Talan’s empathetic gift that can take away much of Gemma’s daily, lived-in pain, that’s something else that peters out about halfway through the book in favor of the sort of dark secrets that are all too common in fantasy romances of this ilk. 

Despite this disappointment, there’s still hope for this series. The subsequent books in the trilogy are meant to focus on Gemma’s sisters, Farrin and Mara, who both display more complexity in their brief appearances in this book than its intended heroine often does. (Plus, I’m not made of stone—the idea of eldest sister Farrin getting together with Ryder Bask, son of her family’s worst enemy is incredible.) Here’s hoping that the story’s second volume will find a more coherent way to tell their stories. 

A Crown of Ivy and Glass is available now wherever books are sold.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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