Book Review: THE GRACE YEAR by Kim Liggett

The Grace Year is the best of old-school YA dystopia. Kim Liggett serves up suspense and gore alongside sharp ideas on the paradoxes of female power.

Book Cover: The Grace Year


Survive the year.

No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden. 

In Garner County, girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, to drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why they’re banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive. 

Sixteen-year-old Tierney James dreams of a better life—a society that doesn’t pit friend against friend or woman against woman, but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that it’s not just the brutal elements they must fear. It’s not even the poachers in the woods, men who are waiting for a chance to grab one of the girls in order to make a fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other. 

With sharp prose and gritty realism, The Grace Year examines the complex and sometimes twisted relationships between girls, the women they eventually become, and the difficult decisions they make in-between. 

I love it when a book lives up to its comps perfectly.

I first heard The Grace Year pitched as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies with a dash of The Hunger Games. That’s precisely what I got. Dystopian version of Puritanical New England, kids left to create a society on their own… win-or-die and wilderness survival… tons of gore… it’s exactly what I was promised.

The Grace Year is the best of classic YA dystopia. I gobbled the entire thing down in one evening–it’s been a while since a book lit up the part of my brain that needs to read on to see the character through her current peril. Apart from anything else, this was just a great horror-infused adventure–suspenseful, exciting, and frightening. The dash of romance doesn’t hurt either.

And on top of all that, the book actually had–oh, happy day!–a point.

I’ve had a lot of bad luck in the last year or so with feminist dystopias. I get frustrated with reads like Vox and Grace and Fury that dwell in “oppression porn” without any specific perspective. The ones that work for me (Girls of Paper and Fire, The Power) have something to say besides “sexism = bad.”

The Power (amazing, btw) explores a few of the same ideas: what if we examined oppression of women by imagining them as uniquely powerful?

And The Grace Year has a lot to say. Most interestingly, the book illustrates a paradox of this oppressive culture. Women are called the “weaker sex” and denied agency, but at the same time, believed to have immense power over men that needs to be controlled. They’re entirely helpless and far too threatening. That’s a fascinating paradox, and Liggett explores it with clever imagery and a sharp eye.

Yes, The Grace Year lacks any semblance of subtlety (the author won’t stop pointing out symbolism!) but I can forgive that. It’s not terrible to come right out with your point in YA. Liggett succeeds in getting a fair amount of nuance across.

Even better, she writes about girls experiencing (and doing!) terrible things in a way that is still empowering.

I’m going to borrow a quote from Emily May (one of my favorite Goodreads reviewers) in her discussion of TheGrace Year:

But what is so odd about The Grace Year is that it’s about women going wild, being jealous, viciously hurting each other, and yet it somehow manages to be a celebration of women and the ties between them. Mothers and daughters. Sisters. Friends. It’s quite incredible how Liggett takes these women to their very worst so that we can eventually appreciate them at their best.”

That sums it up perfectly. By the end, we have a new paradox that builds off the first: Women have unique and profound capacities to wound one another and to heal one another. They can orient themselves against or with one another by the same qualities.

I won’t give spoilers here, but I have to note that the ending was something special. Liggett perfectly tied all the threads together into something moving, unexpected, and smart.

That said, The Grace Year is not a perfect book.

I enjoyed the reading experience immensely, but can’t quite give five stars.

The book lasts an entire year, and that can be a real challenge for pacing. Liggett doesn’t quite pull off the magic trick it would require to make the pacing feel natural and even while still pushing the reader on to important moments. The jumps in time often seemed disjointed, and sometimes the detail was too much or too little.

There are also some real struggles with characterization. Tierney isn’t exactly a groundbreaking YA heroine (“I was a willful child, too curious for my own good, head in the clouds, lacking propriety,” she tells us), but I still had some trouble understanding her choices. She’s also got the same problem as the heroines of Grace and Fury. Tierney seems like she’s been plucked out of 2010s America and dropped, at 16, into this setting. I don’t have any sense of how growing up in this culture shaped her. She feels strongly that her world is ordered completely wrong, but I never saw how she came to that conclusion.

I do have one major reservation.

I have some quibbles with the world building and writing, sure, but my main reservation with The Grace Year is this: Where are the non-white, non-cis people?

Gif: "Why is everyone in the kingdom white?"

Setting up a dystopia based on strict gender roles and sex segregation naturally without even a passing mention of the existence of transgender or nonbinary people… it raises some questions.

I actually mean that question seriously. I’m working on a full post to parse out why people of color and trans and nonbinary people are absent. (I don’t mean that I want to excuse it. Digging into the lack of diversity in this book might be able to tell us a lot about the genre.)

~ ~ ~

Content warnings for The Grace Year include sexual assault (discussion and some on-page groping/threatening), death (on-page death of teens, on-page public execution), graphic violence (detailed on-page depictions of bodily violence, some gore and body horror, mutilation, scars/body part loss), misogyny (sex-segregated oppressive community, forced marriage, sex-shaming language, predatory behavior, all challenged), homophobia (homophobic language and violence, threat of punishment for same-sex relationships, public outing), transphobia (scene of grabbing a teen girl’s crotch to “check”). The book contains moderate language, fade-to-black sex scenes among consenting teens, frank discussion of sex, and discussions of prostitution (including forced prostitution). The book contains a first-person scene of childbirth, discussion of infertility (and shaming for same), and many scenes of pregnancy and menstruation.

Thank you to Wednesday Books for providing an advance review copy of this title. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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