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Title: Hagen’s Curse
Author: James Emmi
Release Date: June 25, 2020 (re-release)
Genres: Fantasy, Low fantasy (meaning little magic)
Star Rating: 4.5/5
Hagen’s Curse is a bittersweet fairy tale for grown-ups, who like their damsels complex and their heroes fallible. The nepotistic town of Hagen, Germany, does what it always has done: file into church on Sunday, eat the same foods that have been made for generations, and defer to the descendant of the town’s famous line of bakers, the Hecklers. When Hans Heckler’s apprentice, known to the locals as “The Boy Who Cannot Tell a Lie,” leaves to work with a beautiful beekeeper on the edges of town, the status quo of the town is threatened, and a conspiracy to set it right begins.
I went into this book somewhat blind; since there are a few tropes in fantasy that I hate and don’t want to bias myself unfairly, I try not to find out much about fantasy books before reading them. I was pleasantly surprised, and impressed, with how a plot set into motion by desserts became something dark and much deeper than I’d expected. Emmi keeps the fantasy tropes very light, and the star of the book is the cat and mouse game that plays out between its characters.
The characters themselves are well-written and have motivations, backstories, and dialogue that rings true throughout the book. It’s refreshing to see a female heroine that is determined, clever, but not cutthroat or reliant on a band of cutthroats to do her bidding. One of the tragedies of Hagen’s Curse is that Anika lands in so much trouble over such a simple goal: to make and sell desserts. She’s also less static than many female fantasy characters, and the events of the novel leave her much changed.
The main antagonist of the story, Hans Heckler, is just as multidimensional, and is a great example of a well-constructed, morally gray villain. He’s arrogant, selfish, and stubborn. At several points of the narrative, his backstory gives him away as a truly sympathetic character, only for him to turn around and do something so dastardly that the reader’s sympathy is entirely forgotten. The exchanges and mysterious connection between Hans and Anika drives much of the intrigue of the book. While Jonathan is also a well-written character with flaws and believable motivations, the one drawback of the novel is that he can sometimes fade into the background, comparative to Anika and Hans.
Hagen’s Curse is a quick read, but full of surprises and treats for a reader who likes their fantasy with a little bit of romance, a lot of double-crossing and trickery from its characters, and a focus on the humanity of its characters, rather than magic and exhaustive world-building. It’s a novel that manages to take on serious subjects and grave situations without taking itself too seriously, which is a rare and pleasant find.
Content warnings: threats of sexual assault, torture, grief.
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