Spoilers! Only read if you have finished A Heart So Fierce and Broken!
Brigid Kemmerer is one of my favorite contemporary YA authors, so I was not wholly surprised to discover that she can write a compelling fantasy series, as well. The heart of her stories has always been her characters, who seem vibrantly alive, and who seem destined to capture the sympathies of readers. Naturally, I fell in love with Harper and Rhen and Grey when I read A Curse So Dark and Lonely. Naturally, I fell in love all over again in A Heart So Fierce and Broken, and I found new characters to love, as well. The strength of A Heart So Fierce and Broken is, for me, the conflict between Rhen and Grey. I remember rooting for Rhen, wanting him desperately to save himself and to save his country. It is heart-breaking that now he appears to be the enemy. I feel compelled to root for Grey now, but I wonder what happened. How could Rhen seemingly change so much? And how can Harper still stand by his side? A Heart So Fierce and Broken is so extraordinary because it makes readers feel what Grey feels: the recognition that Rhen no longer seems to be a good ruler, but a reluctance to stand against a man who seemed so good. And maybe, just maybe, a dash of realization that Rhen was not that good all along–he did lie to his people–but we wanted to support him, anyway.
A Heart So Fierce and Broken places the conflict between Rhen and Grey at the center of the story, setting readers up for a final showdown in which Grey must decide if he is willing to fight his brother to save the people of Emberfall, and in which Rhen must decide if he is willing to sacrifice everyone to cling to his throne. The premise is original and striking. Fantasy series very often rely on the “good guys” fighting a dark lord or an otherwise evil villain. Not very often does one find a story in which the “good guys” must reluctantly face a former ally in order to preserve what they see as the greater good. The concept is rich and nuanced, because it actually does not seem right to march to war against Rhen. No matter how many cruel things he has done to save his own title, we know Rhen. We loved Rhen. We still want to believe in him.
This richness is why the ending of A Heart So Fierce and Broken is so deeply unsatisfying. By raising Lilith from the dead, so to speak, Kemmerer erases all the moves she made during the course of the story and resets it so that Grey and Rhen have to fight the same villain once more in the third installment of the book. Far from being a thrilling cliffhanger, Lilith’s emergence is boring and somewhat unimaginative. A more interesting story would be Grey fighting his brother, and torn apart about it. Grey eventually finding out Rhen is still being controlled by the same old villain and joining with him to defeat her has a “been there, done that” feel. I would much prefer a story in which Grey and Rhen actually have to rely on their wits and their hearts to find a peaceable solution, instead of presumably just joining together against a common enemy.
The ending of A Heart So Fierce and Broken feels a little like a betrayal because it sets readers up for one story only to take that away at the last minute in exchange for a cheap plot twist. I was excited to read a fantasy series that seemed poised to move away from the black-and-white battles between the protagonists and the evil wielder of magic and instead focus on a battle drawn in shades of grey. Now, that all seems to be gone. We will be retreading old ground in the next book, fighting a villain who really ought to be dead.