“Rhen,” she calls after me.
I pause in the doorway and face her.
“I’m not going to fall in love with you,” she says.
Her words are not a surprise. I sigh.
“You won’t be the first.”
A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer
Prince Rhen of Emberfall has been eighteen for over three hundred seasons. Cursed by a sorceress to repeat the Autumn of his eighteenth year until he manages to convince a woman to fall in love with him, Rhen sees the curse as a game at first. But at the end of the first season Rhen begins to turn into a monster, and as he does, he forgets who he is. As a beast, he has no control, and murders his entire family, before coming back to himself for the final hour of the season to see the havoc he has wreaked. For three hundred seasons he has turned into a beast, his murderous rampages decimating his kingdom leaving his guard Grey as his only company. And his memory of each season never fades. In his final season, Rhen is ready to accept that he will turn into a monster forever, until Grey is attacked by a young woman who witnesses his attempt to kidnap Rhen’s latest conquest, and he accidentally brings her to Emberfall instead…
On the surface, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer is hugely problematic. How could it not be when the obvious slap slap kiss love story at the heart of it centres on a handsome prince who with the assistance of his trusty guard kidnaps hundreds of women to use in an attempt to break a curse each season. Details are hazy on what happens to the women (selected for being what the agents of Criminal Minds would call high risk, no family, no support network, no one to miss them when they’ve gone…) when the season is over. Rhen says they return to their world, but it also sounds like he ate a few of them in monster form, so it looks like at least a few of them are now forever Emberfall, as it were.
So yes, a romantic fantasy which starts with two men kidnapping a young woman and keeping her locked up in a castle should set alarm bells ringing, and neon signs flashing problematic, but I actually really enjoyed reading Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely.
By bringing the reader in towards the very end of the curse skips over the worst excesses of Rhen’s former character that the novel hints at and lets us see him at his most vulnerable. He’s lost everything, and despite his own morbid curiosity about the limits of his curse (he’s tried to end his own life several times, and tried to persuade his Guardsman, Grey to behead him) he’s resigned to his fate, a broken man who is now only concerned about his citizens and owning his failure… And then there’s Harper.
Harper is to A Curse So Dark and Lonely as Clare Randall/Fraser is to the Outlander novels. An intelligent, loyal and empathetic heroine who acts rashly but always with the best intentions. A teenaged girl living in poverty in Washington D.C., she accidentally makes the trip to Emberfall when she sees Grey attempting to kidnap a young woman outside a nightclub, and barely hesitates to rush in and attack him with a tyre iron despite that being even more challenging for Harper than the average woman, because Harper has mild cerebral palsy that affects her balance and movement in one leg.
I haven’t lived with cerebral palsy personally, but I have taught students with mild CP, and I found the portrayal of Harper really refreshing. Finally, a heroine in a YA novel with a named disability that places realistic boundaries on her physical capabilities who isn’t portrayed as a burden, a damsel in distress or in need of fixing. She might take the role of the warrior woman, learning to throw knives and shoot a bow, but what sets her apart is her empathy and fierce intelligence. She’s easily the equal of her kidnappers, and while she doubts she will ever fall in love with Rhen and break the curse, her strong sense of social justice allows her to see that there are plenty of ways he can still help the Kingdom of Emberfall in the meantime.
Part of the reason that the highly problematic kidnapper/captive love story doesn’t become as problematic as it could is the dynamic between Rhen, Grey and Harper. Rhen is an overthinker, always calculating with the need to feel twenty steps ahead of any scenario, Harper is rash and impulsive, Grey acts as the balance between them, and in a move that has shades of Outlander again, teaches Harper to defend herself with a dagger when she tries to attack him. Both young men treat Harper with the utmost respect at all times, almost to the point of deference, and this leads Rhen to quickly drop any pretence of seduction and be honest about his plight.
It was good to see a YA novel where a relationship grows out of total honesty, though despite Kemmerer’s best efforts, I have to admit I struggled to feel much empathy for the Rhen, I found his character fairly brittle even when the ultimate Big Bad, sorceress and magesmith Lilith was brought out to torment him (in fairness it’s hard to blame someone for wanting revenge on a man whose family were responsible for the genocide of her people). In comparison to Rhen, Harper and Grey were far more interesting characters to read about, even though the novel is narrated from Harper and Rhen’s points of view, and I suspect that Kemmerer may have enjoyed writing them more too.
There’s a lot going on in A Curse So Dark and Lonely – deeply troubled families, dying parents, broken kingdoms, debt, bad choices, the weight of the crown and the responsibility that comes with it, but Brigid Kemmerer has woven it all together beautifully in a fantasy novel that does the hard work for you and doesn’t shy away from embracing its characters vulnerabilities.