A Curse of Roses
by Diana Pinguicha
17-year-old Yzabel of Aragon is engaged to the young King of Portugal, and under her touch, food turns into flowers…
With the populace starving, and barely surviving herself, Yzabel doesn’t only need to end her curse—she must reverse it somehow. Turn flowers into food. Desperate, she sets to find Fatyan, an immortal rumored to live nearby, but she is imprisoned by an old enchantment. So they must strike a bargain: Fatyan will teach Yzabel how to master her magic, and Yzabel making a deal with Fatyan will release the magical bonds holding her captive.
As she learns to control her power under Fatyan’s guidance, they grow closer in a way Yzabel has never felt for her betrothed. But she must keep this part of their relationship secret, or else lose her claim to the throne. If Yzabel is forced to leave Portugal, shamed for loving another woman, the people she was determined to save will surely die.
I received an eARC of A Curse of Roses from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Despite my rating, there’s so much I appreciated about this book.
This is one of the first YA historical fiction novels I’ve seen acknowledge just how big a part religion played in the lives of the people who came before us. This shouldn’t be a surprise when this novel is a retelling of a miracle, it’d be odd if Christianity wasn’t a major theme, but as someone who grew up Catholic I found so many parts of this book so validating. I have a very complicated relationship with religion—I don’t describe myself as a Christian because I have a hell of a lot of problems with the institute that is the church—and yet I still find churches very comforting places and, when I’m feeling lost, I’ll often find myself praying because it gives me comfort. I’ve got no idea who I’m praying to, but if you’re raised Catholic then Catholicism, and Catholic guilt, stays with you for a long, long time.
I loved seeing a heroine having to discover her queerness while unlearning all the toxic things that have been drilled into her. For years Yzabel, the future Queen of Portugal, has been unable to eat properly because food turns to flowers in her mouth. She believes she’s cursed and manages to pass off her inability to eat as fasting, and it’s horrible watching the men of the cloth around her praise her for starving herself. It is really Yzabel’s relationship with God that’s at the centre of this novel as she learns to control what isn’t a curse but, instead, a gift, and one she can potentially reverse to turn flowers into food for Portugal’s starving population. I’ve seen a couple of reviewers say they didn’t care for this novel because they thought it was ‘too religious’, but personally I love seeing characters in historical fiction acknowledge their religion. For as long as there have been religions there have been people who don’t believe in them, but I don’t like picking up a historical fiction novel feeling like I’m reading about a 21st century atheist in a medieval dress.
Unfortunately, a lot of the other things in this novel fell flat for me. Yzabel seeks the help of an Enchanted Moura—these are supernatural beings from Portuguese folklore that I’d never heard of before, so I’m grateful to Pinguicha for introducing me to them—named Fatyan who she believes can lift her curse. Instead it’s Fatyan who teaches her how to control it and see it as a gift, and a romance develops between the two of them. The romance, however, is very instalovey which meant I simply couldn’t get invested in it. In fact everything in this novel moved very quickly, and while that did make it an incredibly easy read it also meant I didn’t care quite as much as I should have.
This is a Portuguese tale set in Portugal by a Portuguese author, and yet there’s no real sense of the setting. At one point, for example, ‘the baker’ is mentioned, as though this town where the king and future queen live would only have the one baker. I say ‘town’ because I can’t remember where the novel mentioned they were, and I can’t remember for certain if a specific place was mentioned. This novel has a fairy tale vibe that does fit that generic setting where there is the king and the princess and the baker, but as it’s historical fiction based on real people I wish I’d felt a bit more grounded in medieval Portugal.
By the end of the book I also found the plot itself a little too convoluted for me and the villain simply didn’t do it for me. To be honest I’m not sure this novel really needed a villain when it’s the society and time Yzabel lives in that are the problems; for a fair amount of the novel Yzabel is her own antagonist because she has to unlearn her internalised homophobia and that, combined with the priests praising her for starving herself, was already enough to keep me intrigued.
Even though I didn’t love this novel as much as I hoped I would, I am still fond of this book for exploring Catholicism in a way many other YA historical novels haven’t. It’s clear this story meant an awful lot to Pinguicha and I’m definitely interested in reading more from her in future.