Review: “Briar Girls” by Rebecca Kim Wells

Release Date: November 16, 2021
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Description

Lena has a secret: the touch of her skin can kill. Cursed by a witch before she was born, Lena has always lived in fear and isolation. But after a devastating mistake, she and her father are forced to flee to a village near the Silence, a mysterious forest with a reputation for luring people into the trees, never to be seen again…​

Until the night an enigmatic girl stumbles out of the Silence and into Lena’s sheltered world. Miranda comes from the Gather, a city in the forest brimming with magic. She is on a quest to wake a sleeping princess believed to hold the key to liberating the Gather from its tyrannical ruler—and she offers Lena a bargain. If Lena assists her on her journey, Miranda will help her break the curse.

Mesmerized by Miranda and her promise of a new life, Lena jumps at the chance. But the deeper into the Silence she goes, the more she suspects she’s been lied to—about her family’s history, her curse, and her future. As the shadows close in, Lena must choose who to trust and decide whether it’s more important to have freedom…or power.

My Thoughts

Cursed by a witch with a touch that kills, Lena has always been alone. Her mother abandoned them when Lena was little, and now she and her father are on the run after Lena accidentally killed someone. A job opportunity brings them to a village on the edge of a massive forest known as the Silence. Those called by the Silence either disappear into the forest and are never seen again or are “rescued” by their fellow villagers and are driven mad when prevented from escaping. Lena’s father’s new job is to guard the border between the village and the Silence to prevent anyone from entering it. No one plans for someone exiting it. 

Miranda stumbles out of the Silence and into Lena’s arms. Lena, desperate to escape her father’s smothering rules, hatches a plan with Miranda to help her find a hidden princess and destroy a brutal king. But nothing and no one is what they seem in the Silence…even the Silence itself. Double-crossed and betrayed by everyone she knows and hunted by a cruel princess and a dictator, both of whom want her power, Lena’s deadly magic may be the only way to survive. 

Rebecca Kim Wells wastes no time in diving into the action. Briar Girls is constantly on the go, with just enough quieter moments to not exhaust the reader. It’s energetic but not frantic, a fast-paced quasi-fairytale full of interesting characters and settings. I wish the worldbuilding had been a bit deeper for the locations; I wanted – needed – to know a lot more about the Silence, the Gather, and the lands beyond to really understand the foundations of what was happening. A map would’ve been nice (I only had an ARC, so not sure if there is one in the final copy) and some more description on how these places function. However, that’s a minor quibble. 

What I especially loved about this book were the interpersonal relationships. The story is sex-positive and wonderfully queer. Lena gets to have sex with different people and isn’t slut-shamed or wracked with guilt over her actions. Wells frames it as Lena exploring her body, her sense of self, and her identity. Where other authors would’ve settled for a lazy love triangle, Wells brings depth and meaning to Lena’s relationships. 

We also get a good discussion about parenting. Lena’s parents are complicated humans who make a lot of mistakes but who try to do what’s right (even if others get hurt along the way). We see them not as wise elders but as people just as flawed as our heroine. I’m not sure how much teen readers will get out of their depictions, but as an adult who works with teens I really appreciated it.

Briar Girls is a quick, fun, moody young adult fantasy novel. It would make a great addition to any YA collection.

Buy it at bookshop.org (affiliate link).

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