As I've said on social media, and in my spoiler-free version of this review, The Briars felt like it was made with me in mind. There were so many little things that I'm constantly looking for in my horror fiction that I found in this amazing book by Stephanie Parent.
I'll be digging into all the things I loved, the parts that didn't work for me and just my overall thoughts in this review. HOWEVER, there will be major spoilers. You can read my spoiler-free version of the review here on Goodreads if you're interested. Otherwise, this is your last SPOILER WARNING, so proceed at your own risk.
The Briars is a ghost story that takes place in a commercial dungeon of the same name. The story follows Claire, a former ballerina turned professional submissive, and her love interest, Mistress Ruby, as they try to uncover the true story behind weird things happening during sessions. Already, this checks a lot of boxes for me. I love former ballerina horror. I love BDSM horror. I love sapphic horror. I was completely sold.
The first half of the book is near-perfect in my eyes.
A new girl shows up to work at The Briars and everyone agrees there is something a little off about her. She's suspiciously innocent, drop-dead gorgeous, and not even she seems to know where she comes from. The attention is taken off of her by the increasingly violent nature of the haunting in the building. The "friendly" ghost seems less friendly as more and more strange things begin happening during sessions.
There are different points of tension building through the narrative, multiple mysteries, and you are introduced to the cast of characters. The focus is primarily on Claire and Mistress Ruby, though I think a persisting strength of the story is that the supporting characters also feel real. They have histories, struggles, and individual motivations before they all come together near the climax to help.
This is also where the pacing was at its finest. The reader gets a feel for how things operate at The Briars usually, while also being fed clues that things aren't exactly business as usual.
I have one complaint about that first half of the book, and it's Danny.
I actually don't mind him all the time. He seems very real. We all have met a Danny. Many of us have dated a Danny. I dated several guys like this, one of whom was actually named Danny. There are times when his failing relationship to Claire gives us invaluable insight into her character. There are also many more times where we just want to slap him, which I also didn't mind. That was intentional, and it did add that level of realism to the story.
Unfortunately, Danny represents my least favorite element of the book as a whole and that was the romance.
I believe that horror and romance have the ability to blend together seamlessly. It doesn't have to be either or. I won't go so far as to say I felt that the romance overshadowed the horror in this title, but I will say it got dangerously close. I feel like it was structured more like a romance book, with Claire needing to come into her own as a character and leave Danny before she can be with someone who understands what she needs. Unfortunately, this is one of my least favorite romance dynamics and it was executed very blatantly here.
While Claire tries to decide between two loves, and two conflicting lifestyles, the POV chapters from her other love interest made it painfully obvious that staying with Danny was never truly in the cards for her character. It also put her on the defensive with Ruby, and keeping them at odds for so much of the book felt like it hindered their ability to show off their chemistry.
I also don't know how I feel about Ruby as a character.
While Claire is everything that I look for in my bi/pan and submissive representation, I felt Ruby was lacking in some dominant lesbian rep areas. This is where having the genre be centered more on horror could have made a big difference in how I interpreted some of these tropes. Ruby had a fantastic backstory of religious trauma and a mysterious scar that is revealed in the late chapters to have come from an assault that she never reported and is still working through.
Coming at this through a horror lens, these scenes feel more cathartic, and that is how I'm choosing to interpret them. What gave me pause is that this also feels like the kind of backstory that I've seen used in romance to hand-wave away a love interest's poor behavior. Ruby does have a lot of poor behavior in this book. While all of her questionable actions can be largely attributed to the haunting or direct side-effects of the haunting, there is a certain level of misandry in her character that is just not addressed. Claire does a lot of growing before she can date Ruby and Ruby also had a lot of potential for growth that I don't think was explored to its full potential.
If it feels like I'm harping a lot on the romance aspect of this book, it's because I am. It distracted me from what I otherwise felt was a spectacular horror story.
The haunting had several layers to it. There was the legend of the benevolent ghost that had always haunted The Briars, put into harsh contrast with the violent messages that the girls are receiving during their sessions. Those legends serve as a red herring to the one causing all the problems, Mara, who is a very special kind of spirit. Both specters are shrouded in mystery, and I liked that there were questions to be answered from so many different sources.
I also adored the setting.
The Briars as an establishment feels like it has a history well suited for a ghost story. The climbing roses on the property are the perfect early metaphor for the dungeon, filled with the potential for beauty, and pain. The employment of the women working there was a good way to bring in the classic BDSM elements that are a staple of queer horror. There was also something very exciting about having different themed rooms of play for the sessions. Even though a lot of the sessions boiled down to spanking or flogging, the scenery around those sections always added something.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I did not talk about how beautifully the book was written. It was not flowery to the point of getting distracted, but I loved that the horror and romance both were handled poetically. I was deeply impressed by the style from page one, and it was one aspect of the book that never faltered in the slightest.
I am looking forward to reading more of Parent's work, and would try pretty much anything she wrote based off of this.
While I did have the one major complaint about the balance of romance to horror tipping too far to romance, that is a preference. Even the inclusion of a not-quite-a-love-triangle is a preference. That's a standard story trope and it endures because it resonates with a lot of people -- I am just not one of them. Having aired my grievances on that point, I have to say that the good still truly outweighed the bad.
This is one that I've been recommending a lot since receiving the ARC and I still feel confident recommending it now.