Aloriya is a peaceful kingdom, as long as the monsters in the Wildwood at the edge of the kingdom stay back and the Crown is worn by the current ruler, gifted with magic powers. But during a coronation monsters come into the kingdom to try and take the Crown back. Will the gardener’s daughter and her pet fox be able to save everyone in Aloriya and keep the Crown safe?
I give this book 4.5 stars (out of five). I really loved this story, in my opinion it’s basically everything you could want in a fairytale fantasy story all combined into one. It has multiple different perspectives, plot twists and reveals, subverted expectations, magic and curses (as well as a main character with a tragic backstory). This particular story is also kind of terrifying at certain points, which I really liked and thought made it even more engaging, entertaining and made it way easier to emphasize with and relate to the main characters. After a quick summary of the main plot I’ll go into a bit more detail about all the different reasons why I personally love this story.
Cerys is the Royal gardener’s daughter, living in the kingdom of Aloriya, she was best friends with the two royal children. A prince named Lorne and a princess named Alwen, one day many years before the story takes place there was a terrible accident involving the Wildwoods (a cursed forest near the kingdom only held back by the magical deal between the Lady the Wilds and the King of Aloriya and their magical crown).
One day they see something weird in the woods and insist on going to check it out, this results in all the children and Seren (an older boy tasked with keeping an eye on them) end up stuck in the woods and hunted down by a monster (an Ancient). Cerys and Alwen survive but unfortunately Lorne and Cerys’s mom (who had also gone in to help them) died. She was wood cursed and turned into a Bone Eater, who later came back to try and kill Cerys. And Lorne was never seen again, after that tragic loss everything changed. Cerys now has a gift, since in the woods she was wood cursed but it never fully took hold. Her blood can grow flowers and other plants.
The current storyline picks up on Cerys, her father and her friend/pet Fox all preparing for the coronation. After Alwen’s father dies she is next in line to become Queen. But at the coronation everything goes wrong when people start suddenly becoming wood cursed and a monster comes into the castle in search of the Crown. It claims that the Crown belongs with them and not to the Royal family. As everyone around her becomes wood cursed Cerys has to fight through the crowd to get to the Crown and escape the castle, even her father and Alwen are turned into monsters until nearly everyone is Bone Eaters.
Cerys is forced to not only use her powers to defend herself but even to put the Crown on herself and use the incredible power of it, but the Crown nearly corrupts her and the Fox knocks it off her head. Together they escape the castle and the monsters chasing them, now they’re lost in the Wildwood surrounded by monsters who are after them and the Crown. They have to survive and try to save everyone in Aloriya.
[Major spoilers in the rest of the summary and the other section, skip to the last paragraph to avoid spoilers.]
They meet a bear named Nala who protects and teams up with them, in the middle of a fight Fox is accidentally turned into a human using Cerys’s powers and she doesn’t know how to turn him back. They eventually decide to head towards the rumoured kingdom hidden in the middle of the forest, because they should have answers, magic and shelter from the monsters that roam the woods.
But after a long fight to get there the Kingdom isn’t what they expected and they are nearly rejected from it just for being outsiders. Also along the way Fox sacrifices himself for the others and gets wood cursed during an attack, he was brought into safety before he was fully turned. Inside the city he was put into prison as he started to become a Bone Eater. Once Cerys was well enough to understand what was going on, she convinced the guards to let her see Fox and then she put her own life at risk by using her powers to try and cure him. She manages to turn him back into a human, but this display of power nearly corrupts the ruler of this Kingdom who starts thinking that Cerys’s blood can cure everyone even when that is clearly impossible.
In the climax of this story, the safe kingdom’s walls are broken down and the city is overrun by Bone Eaters. Cerys tries to help and save them but it’s a tough fight while many monsters and characters all fight to protect or to steal the crown. The ruler also tries to use Cerys’s blood to cure her daughter, even ignoring Cerys explaining that her powers can’t cure someone once they’ve fully turned and will kill them instead. In a terrifying and gripping conclusion Cerys manages to come out on top by destroying the Crown and breaking the curse haunting everyone.
My opinions and comments:
I really like how the title ties into the story, not only does it come from a descriptive line from one specific and important scene but also fits with the overall consistent themes that spread throughout the entire story. The ‘beasts’ referring to the many horrific creatures that are chasing and haunting the main characters and the ‘briars’ being the thorns that originate from Cerys’s powers and are used frequently to fight back against the beasts and many other obstacles.
The main character Cerys has a very tragic backstory which isn’t the most unique trope but it’s how her backstory is critical to the main plot and her character that really make it stand out, as well as how it’s told to the readers through memories. It also really is one of the contributors of horror to this book because as a child watching multiple of your close friends and family members dying horrible deaths in front of you is not really something you want to see.
This is emphasized even more with how Cerys’s mom not only dies but comes back after being turned into a monster to try and kill her, which makes it even more frightening. This traumatic event is also the source of her curse or power, as it’s later revealed that she was wood cursed but it never fully turned presumably because of her mother’s sacrifice. This also gives her powers another layer, showing how although it could be seen as a beautiful gift to grow flowers and plants with her blood it isn’t always pretty.
I really like Cerys’s powers and all the unique ways she and Fox use them to stay alive in the Wildwood. I love how they have a wide variety of uses since they can be used to just grow a few plants or breath in life into some flowers, but can also sprout walls of thorns and kill monsters. I also just think that her power is really beautiful by itself.
Fox is a really interesting character and his story is actually pretty deep, since for most or at least the beginning of the story he is literally a fox. Until after things start to go wrong and he is accidentally turned into a human by Cerys’s powers, this is a huge change and I really appreciate how the abrupt transition wasn’t just glossed over. In his perspective it outwardly states that he doesn’t like being a human, and his fox instincts are still very much present.
When it is even later revealed that he used to be the Prince he is incredibly confused because after being a literal fox for so long he doesn’t really have many memories from when he used to be a human, but eventually after rediscovering his powers he realizes and understands the truth. Despite trying to run away from his problems multiple times and just go back to the simpler life he had as a fox, by the end of the story his character has grown and he not only goes back to try and save Cerys but sacrifices himself for her and what she’s trying to do, even after knowing who he is and realizing that he actually wants to stay as a human.
Fox and Cerys’s relationship or romance is also done very well, since for a lot of the story one of them is literally an animal who doesn’t have extremely complex thoughts or feelings there definitely was a big shift in their dynamic once Fox became human. But it’s really nice to see how these two characters fit together and awkwardly fall in love despite their vast differences, and even work better together and rely on each other.
The many twists and reveals make this story so much better, since for most of the time you can never really relax and almost anything could happen next. This keeps you very engaged and focused on the story ever since you start reading, I personally read this entire book in one afternoon because I just could not put it down.
One of the most surprising reveals was that characters that seemed like they had already died or were only minor background characters came back. Even when we thought they were dead or never going to show up again this actually happens multiple times with the monster chasing Cerys being Seren (that boy who used to protect the royal children) and Fox actually being the long thought dead Prince.
I thought it was an amazing twist when throughout most of the story Cerys, Fox and Nala the bear are fighting through the woods to find their way to find the Lady of the Wilds within a basically lost kingdom in the middle of the Wildwoods. But when they finally get there they find it is nothing like they and us (the readers) expected. It turns out that in the Kingdom Aloriya what everyone had believed and passed down for generations was nothing but misinformation and one side of a twisted story. This meant that Cerys and everyone from Aloriya really had no idea what it was like and the people living in the woods had a totally different story, which just goes to show that it’s important to think about where you’re getting information from and showcase how stories and information can get lost and changed overtime. It also shows how you can never really get a good idea of the big picture if you only look at it from one perspective.
I would like to comment on the many terrifying monsters, called Bone Eaters and Ancients. These creatures were honestly very scary and at certain points it kind of felt like I was in the middle of a horror story instead of a fantasy book (but this book does both very well). The incredibly detailed descriptions of these monsters make them very vivid and easy to picture which makes them all the scarier. They were especially scary during the many chase scenes throughout the book where they’re getting ever closer to catching the main characters.
I thought it was a really nice detail that ever since most of Cerys’s friends and family (and many other people) are wood cursed and turn into Bone Eaters, it is specifically Alwen (Cerys’s best friend) that haunts her. And is constantly following her at every turn and trying to kill her and get the crown. This makes it even harder for Cerys to fight back and the monsters torment her even more since she knows the people she loved most are now monsters who want to kill her, just like what happened with her mother years ago.
I thought the foreshadowing regarding whether Cerys would stay in the kingdom and live the life that’s been laid out for her or leave and travel the world to find a place where she can be more than just the Gardener’s daughter, was done very well. Even in this fictional setting and fantasy kingdom there’s still clear division between the classes that restrict multiple of the characters. Cerys is stuck as ‘just a Gardener’s daughter’ (which is said many times throughout the book) where she can only ever do certain things and live a certain way, in a different way it’s the same for Alwen since she’s stuck being Queen whether she wants to be or not.
I also absolutely love the ending, after all the terrible things and turns that happen to the main characters they really deserved a happy ending. And even if the ending was relatively open-ended, I loved how it was set up. It was kind of a full circle to when everything went wrong but this time wasn’t necessarily perfect either, which makes it feel all the more real. Showing each character’s ending or at least what is next for them was a great way to end off the story. I also wanted to mention that although it is not in the main three characters there is still a good amount of LGBTQ+ representation, mainly in the form of a potential relationship between two female characters.
Overall I loved reading this book, I liked all the characters and the twists and basically everything about it! My main warning is that it can be a bit scary at times and there might be a few times when a deep moment comes out of nowhere, but I found those add to the story and don’t take away from it at all.