3.5 / 5 stars
Read in October 2019
Book #1 in the Ash Princess trilogy
It was appropriate and sobering to read this book the week of Indigenous Peoples’ Day – formerly Columbus Day **cue booing** – in the United States. While I knew that this book told the tale of a young queen fighting to take back her kingdom, I didn’t realize just how much Theo’s story would lead me to reflect on the brutal history of colonization and its horrifying destruction of native peoples and their cultures. This made the book extremely powerful and brought what would likely have been a 2.5/3 star novel for me up to 3.5 stars.
As a child, Theodosia witnessed the murder of her mother and the conquest of her kingdom. Once destined to be queen, she has lived under the blood-stained thumb of the cruel Kaiser for a decade and allowed him to morph her into a delicate puppet with a new name and a shameful title. When a violent act forces Theo to reflect on her role in this brutal world, she sets in motion a rebellion she once believed impossible in her order to save her people.
Easing into the story, it took me awhile to adjust to Theo’s PoV. I would not say the writing in this book was amazing, however its colloquial nature did give Theo a distinct voice. The early chapters were a bit too expositional for my liking, with a lot of telling rather than showing; however when sprinkled appropriately into a scene, specific worldbuilding details on Astrean and Kalovaxian food, clothing, and languages painted a vivid picture of Theo’s life. I was disappointed that we only saw hints of Astrean magic, as it was mentioned so often but so rarely shown that I felt a bit cheated.
Regarding the characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Theo was my favorite in the novel. Generally I gravitate towards supporting characters in 1st person PoV stories, which was the case in both the Red Queen series and the Shadow and Bone trilogy. However, Theo was resilient and clever and had a clear, well-executed character arc in which she learned to fight back against the people and past traumas plaguing her. I struggled alongside her in my feelings towards other characters, especially Cress, realizing with Theo that people are not so easily categorized into good or evil.
“I’m a queen,” I correct her softly, even as I wonder if I’m both. Maybe all rulers have to be at least part monster in order to survive.
I’m looking forward to getting to know our supporting cast even better – Cress, Soren, Blaise, Art, Heron, and Erik – as they were all enjoyable characters just beginning to come out of their shells. Theo’s rollercoaster love triangle could have used a bit more build up, however I appreciated that Theo’s dedication to her mission took precedence over her love interests. I even found myself wanting to know more about the cruel Kaiser – was he simply written to be SuperEvil™, or will we get a backstory on how he became such a fear-mongering tyrant?
Lastly, despite my opinion on the overall writing of this book, there were a lot of thought-provoking quotes. I found myself marking several pages for future reference and had a difficult time choosing which quotes to include in this review.
I suppose it’s easy to be at home in a world where you are on top. It’s easy not to notice whose back you stand on to stay there. One doesn’t even see them.
If you’re looking for a story with a cunning heroine and familiar YA fantasy tropes – some incorporated in revolutionary ways, others not so much – that will allow you to reflect on the real world, I would definitely recommend picking up this book. Now onto Lady Smoke ! I plan to enter this sequel trusting no one but Theo herself.