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A.G. Howard is a #1 New York Times Bestselling author of numerous young adult fantasy and paranormal novels. She wrote the Gothic YA series, Splintered, which is inspired by ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Howard also wrote the standalone novels SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS and ROSEBLOOD. Her newest book, STAIN, is a retelling inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Princess and the Pea.

STAIN is a high fantasy tale following Princess Lyra and Prince Vesper from two rival kingdoms. Relaying their histories from day one, the book highlights their intersecting stories and the prophecy ensuring their betrothal. When Lyra’s father, the king, dies unexpectedly, his sister, Griselda, casts Lyra out of the kingdom for her own gain. Lyra luckily survives and is rescued by a witch who takes her memories and brings her to the enchanted forest. Vesper is dying at the hand of a curse that can only be broken when he marries Lyra. Lyra must retake all that has been stolen from her in order to  save Vesper and unite both of their kingdoms.

While reading STAIN, I could not help but feel the enchantment of the story on each page. Howard writes truly spellbinding worlds and characters who are impossible to ignore or forget. From page one, I knew that STAIN would not be like any fantasy I have ever read. The brutal but also beautiful aspects of this fairy tale are shocking, and I am still reeling from everything that happened to Lyra and Vesper. Their two kingdoms are opposites in every way --- one has the night, one has the day --- and that made the world-building an essential part of the story and plot. Many pages are dedicated to the history of this world because it eventually affects Lyra and Vesper directly. As a retelling, it is not necessary to be familiar with The Princess and the Pea to enjoy the story.

"I could not help but feel the enchantment of the story on each page. Howard writes truly spellbinding worlds and characters who are impossible to ignore or forget."

The book alternates between many different settings, but the enchanted forest was probably the most entertaining to read about. Of course, the two kingdoms had different politics, but the enchanted forest is full of outcasts with their own social codes and norms. I knew that Lyra would be a favorite character from the beginning, but Vesper steadily became one as well. As the ultimate villain, Griselda was so easy to dislike and grow frustrated with. Crony, the witch who rescues Lyra, surprisingly had the most intriguing backstory in the book. Luce, a sort of assistant to Crony, is probably my favorite character of all. STAIN makes it easy to love or hate each character, and readers may feel many emotions as a result.

A.G. Howard is an author who has always intrigued me, but I have not read one of her books until now. STAIN was not what I expected at first, but I believe it succeeds in what Howard aimed for: an enchanting nightmare turned fairy tale. I would recommend not reading the full synopsis of this book because it does give significant parts of the book away. The scope of this novel as a standalone is vast and covers many years of Vesper’s and Lyra’s lives. At times it felt like I would never finish this book, but one of its best qualities is that the story is continuously moving in a new place and direction with each chapter. Much of this world and its characters were left unexplored in the 500 pages of STAIN, and I can imagine a spin-off or two in the future even though it is supposed to be a standalone. There is too much world-building for this book not to set the stage for more.

I recommend STAIN to readers of high-fantasy like SPINDLE FIRE and GIRLS MADE OF SNOW AND GLASS and fans of A.G. Howard’s other works. As an infrequent reader of high fantasy, this book felt long, but I imagine if high fantasy intrigues you, STAIN will as well. Howard crafted a world and plot so carefully and entirely that it is bound to be cherished by many readers. Readers who enjoy mystical settings, high stakes and kingdom politics will enjoy STAIN.

Reviewed by Grace P., Teen Board Member on January 29, 2019

by A. G. Howard