A Curse of Roses by Diana Pinguicha
Published: Entangled: Teen (Demeber 1st 2020)
Genre: young adult; fantasy, historical
Rep: mostly Portuguese cast & setting, lesbian mc, lesbian Muslim li, lesbian scs
TW: religion-based self harm, homophobia, internalised homophobia, blood, murder, body horror
Rating: 4.5/5 🍑
My initial review for A Curse of Roses was simply “lesbians have won with this one!”, and that’s absolutely true and tells you a lot about what you should expect from this book. But let me expand on that a bit.
First of all, the book might not be using modern sexuality labels, on account of it taking place in 13th century, but it makes it very clear that Yzabel is a lesbian. And this is a major part of the novel, maybe even the most important part: Yzabel coming to terms with being a lesbian.
Because, you see, she grew up with extremely strict christian beliefs; when we meet her she uses a cilice on a daily basis to mortify her flesh and “atone” for her “sins”. Her fasting is caused as much by her following the doctrine of her faith, as it is by her literal inability to keep food in her mouth due to the curse. Her whole life seems to be resolving about the laws put down in the Bible, to the point where no one around her can even understand why she puts herself through such trials. She was brought up a certain way, with the Bible and the talk of martyrdom of her saint aunt, and a magical curse running through her veins – all of which turned her into a pious girl who hated her own flesh and blood.
Her upbringing also means that the thought of women loving other women never crossed her mind. And once it does, she views it through the lenses of her faith: as something sinful. A Curse of Roses does an absolutely brilliant job of talking about this, of showing Yzabel’s struggle to reconcile her desires and the teachings of Christ.
It’s also interesting to note that Yzabel is quicker to forgive others their transgressions (or even admit whatever the society views as such is actually nothing more than a way of life & doesn’t have to be forgiven) than to forgive herself. It’s a great strength of her character, the way she chooses kindness time and time again; the way she doesn’t judge others but instead tries to understand their point of view.
The greatest example of that being Yzabel’s treatment of Denis’ mistress. Not only does Yzabel not resent the girl, she’s actually making sure that the relationship is one based on consent and that the girl isn’t being raped by Denis.
But that strength can also be a flaw, and yes, the narrative does acknowledge that, in two ways. One, Yzabel was called out a few times throughout the story on how treats herself in contrast to how she treats others, and those conversations helped her grow and accept herself. And two, those around Yzabel who wish her harm (or simply wish to exploit her position), use her piousness and her belief that she’s tainted (because of the curse and later because of her attraction to women) to manipulate her.
All this to say that the pacing of the book and the way the plot is handled in general is very smart. It uses characters’ flaws to its advantage, it doesn’t spend unnecessary details on things that Yzabel – the only character from whose perspective we view the world – would not know about. And I do believe that is something that A Curse of Roses should be applauded for. It’s absolutely not bad writing for certain details to only be revealed as very much telling instead of showing, when you take into consideration the POV character had no way of knowing about them before. Yzabel is as much surprised as the reader, and that’s a good thing.
I’ve seen people try to argue that the pacing is actually off, that the book is too slow, that it’s boring and nothing happens for whole chapters, but it seems that those people don’t take one thing into consideration: this is a character driven novel. There’s Yzabel’s curse, there’s magic in other forms, there are prelates stealing from the Portugese crown, there are women being accused of witchcraft, but at the end of the day this is a coming of age story of a catholic lesbian in the 13th century. And when viewed as such? The slow parts make perfect tense.
The fact that A Curse of Roses is focused so much on the characters also means that the romance is great. In some regards, Yzabel and Fatyan are a juxtaposition of each other. Yzabel believing in every word of the Bible instead of her own mind & Fatyan having strong opinions on every subject. Of course, it’s not simply black and white like that, and both of them change, but once again, this is something that even the narrative mentions: the girls complementing each other. And it’s one of the reasons they’re so drawn to each other. Because the attraction is obvious from the first time they meet (not to Yzabel, but to Fatyan and surely to the reader) and it only grows stronger and stronger as they spend more time together, in close proximity.
And yet, the romance actually blossoms very slowly. No, it’s not insta love just because two girls want to be close to one another immediately after meeting. It’s not insta love just because they see beauty in the other and don’t want to let go of that. In fact, it takes most of the book for Yzabel to even accept that she’s a lesbian and that it doesn’t go against God’s wishes. That romance is as much central to the story as Yzabel learning to control her gift, and it’s given all the attention it deserves. And what I love most is that once Yzabel does accept it, there’s no shame in it anymore, to the point of there actually being a sex scene in the later part of the book. Not saying that I want to read about teenagers having sex, but that it’s extremely refreshing to see sapphic girls allowed to have that.
The writing itself is very beautiful, as well. It feels a little bit like poetry at times, it’s full of metaphors. The language is flowery, but not in a way of purple prose, where the meaning is lost for the sake of pretty sentences. More, given the subject at hand, the prose takes some liberties to build a magical atmosphere, heavy with the scent of roses. There are instances where a more natural word order is forgotten to create something poetic from a mundane description. It’s wonderful.
Another argument people seem to be making against A Curse of Roses is that magic isn’t described well enough. Which… is just flat-out not true? In reality, magic is a vital part of the novel and as such is written about often. And not only when Yzabel turns food into flowers, but with other characters as well. There’s a whole discussion at some point about the differences between the magic of Yzabel or Fatyan and the magic of Brites, how the girls simply possess magic but Brites had to learn to perform it. It’s clear, from everything we know about Yzabel, why she feels resentful toward her gift at first; it’s clear why some characters are trying to use magic for evil purposes; it’s clear why a lot of them have to hide the magic at all cost.
But the most outrageous offence I’ve seen against A Curse of Roses is that it’s anti-feminist (coupled later in the review, with a statement that Denis was actually a nice guy and that Yzabel was wrong to judge him the way she did, more on which in a second). And I just can’t understand how it’s possible to take that away from a book about a girl who makes sure the mistress of her fiancé actually loves him and is happy, who runs shelters for old and sick prostitutes because she believes they need protection, who is allowed to literally help run a kingdom.
And Denis? Sure, he’s not a villain here, but he didn’t give Yzabel reasons to assume he would be okay with her magic. On the contrary, his views on witchcraft are pretty clear when he imprisons a woman without much evidence against her. And while he might otherwise be a very patient and even caring man, it’s important to remember that Yzabel mistrust is as much about him as it is about how she herself views her own gift.
This is a very long-winded way of saying that A Curse of Roses is a beautiful tale of century long curses and people using any means available to them to ensure they experience some happiness in life. It’s a wonderful story of a lesbian learning to accept herself, enriched by magic and roses.
With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies.
There’s a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic—her curse—has turned her meal into a bouquet. She’s on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain.
If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers…into food.
Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse—if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss.
As the King of Portugal’s betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death?
With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more.
She’d sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel’s destruction.
Based on Portuguese legend, this #OwnVoices historical fantasy is an epic tale of mystery, magic, and making the impossible choice between love and duty…