No prophecy could have predicted Violet Made of Thorns becoming a worthy contender to rule the young adult fantasy genre, although a few battles still need to be won. Gina Chen’s debut novel follows Violet, a Seer who often spins more lines than actual prophecies for the king of Auveny. Auveny is haunted by a seven-year-old prophecy that says the prince’s bride will either save or end the kingdom. The prince in question, Cyrus, has a tense relationship with Violet, who he resents for serving the interests of his father.
As Violet attempts to secure a bride for Cyrus who will save the kingdom, there is a new threat of darkness and destruction. The Witch of Nightmares speaks to Violet, encouraging her to stab Cyrus with a thorn; Violet must right the wrong she induced by saving the prince’s life many years ago when he should have died.
Plot-wise, there’s a lot going on here, and some of it doesn’t seem all that necessary. In the first half, the story moves a bit sluggishly and relies too much on Violet’s asides to her audience about the world they’re in. The fact that Violet must always explain how the world works instead of allowing the audience to see it in action isn’t effective in providing a clear visual sense of the surroundings. On Chen’s part, there’s some great incorporation of fairytale elements and imagery, such as a tower, thorns, beasts, and a ball, but it’s somewhat difficult to get a sense of how everything all fits together.
The fast momentum of the second half makes it much more engaging in that aspect. As Violet discovers what’s plaguing Auveny, there is a lot more dramatic action and prophetic doom. Chen ramps up the conflict with new developments, such as the arrival of a mysterious bride, to create suspense around the fate of the kingdom.
Even then, however, the stakes aren’t amplified to the extent that they could be. While the reader is told about imminent destruction as a consequence of meddling with destiny, the actual logistics of it feel a bit confusing and messy, just like the predicaments Violet finds herself in. Things might not really make sense, but one can’t help but feel immersed in what’s happening nonetheless and invested in Violet’s character arc.
As a character, Violet is the strongest part of the novel. Thematically, Violet is resonant as a symbol of “truth” and how it’s molded by politics. Throughout the novel, Violet struggles with her duty as the king’s seer and a supposed truth-teller. Her internal dilemma to survive as a controversial seer in the kingdom is the most vivid part of Violet Made of Thorns. If there’s one element of Chen’s writing that demands no criticism, it’s the style of her prose. Her writing is absolutely beautiful and hard-hitting, especially when it comes to her characters who are all easily distinguishable from each other.
Violet’s gift is manipulated for political gain, and Violet must face the fact that she is always a tool for someone else to gain power. She is never really allowed to become powerful herself. When the Witch of Nightmares comes to Violet, seeking to recruit her for destructive purposes, she lures Violet in with promises of having her own agency, rather than being forced to serve a king. There is a powerful idea present here about the intersection of politics and magic, and Violet’s voice draws the reader into all of that.
Chen shows this side of Violet’s decisions, allowing readers the opportunity to empathize with Violet and to understand where Violet is coming from. The conflict between serving power and reclaiming her own eventually affects Violet’s ability to perform her duties, especially when it comes to Violet’s feelings for the prince.
The romance, while engrossing, is a bit too quick in its development. As a whole, it feels like Cyrus and Violet are only enemies for a short period of time before they become lovers. Reading the novel, it was difficult to get a sense of why these characters were so drawn to each other. When they did somewhat get together, though, it was a thrilling ride seeing the sheer contrast between Cyrus’ public persona as a prince and how he behaves with Violet.
There were a few moments between Cyrus and Violet that, had they been drawn out, might have added more emotional intensity to the relationship. It’s understandable that Chen might want to save some of that for the second book, but it was still frustrating to feel like these moments were prematurely cut short (although it was frustrating in a mostly good way). Even at the end, there wasn’t really the sense that Cyrus was invested in Violet as a person, but the complicated angst of the relationship was very keenly felt and the smouldering tension between the two didn’t disappoint.
Violet Made of Thorns is the first part of a duology, and Chen sets the first book up well for the second. There’s a curse that needs to be broken, and Violet and Cyrus must deal with the challenges that come for their kingdom, coupled with the political and magical intrigue that shape Chen’s world. A reviewer might be no Seer. Still, no prophecy is needed to predict that Chen’s writing will shape Violet’s world, perhaps even the reader’s, for the better.