by Laura Sebastian
★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)
Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia’s family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess–a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner.
For ten years Theo has been a captive in her own palace. She’s endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside.
Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hope of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword. And power isn’t always won on the battlefield.
For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.
My main problem with this book is it has much of the same formula as so many other YA fantasy novels about an (eventually) strong heroine. You know: girl lives or is raised by the people who have wronged her, some catalyst triggers girl’s breaking point, girl suddenly finds she is not alone in her fight against her oppressor, girl fights (unbeknownst to most everyone) to destroy her enemies and reclaim her rightful place.
Where I feel that this book has redemption, however, is that it has a much less optimistic tone than some others out there. When reading many books with the same concept there is usually a current of hope. Not so here. There was a persistent sense of unpleasantness in the back of my brain for the duration of this book.
For example, there are the more obvious showings of whipping and sexual harassment, and the slightly more subtle but complete lack of any true empathy that Crescentia (Cress) displays through most of the story. But where I think the unpleasant feeling truly lies is in every single character’s lack of a moral compass. ALL the characters (with the exception of the Kaiser) are cast in shades of gray. Are they good people who have been forced to do the unthinkable? Have they lost their humanity, the ability to tell right from wrong? Everyone has been hurt so much that at every turn they cause pain in others, over and over and over.
Ah Theodosia! Theo is infuriating. She is constantly switching back and forth in her feelings toward Cress, in her feelings toward Soren, about who she is and what she wants. She spends most of the book acting weaker than she is when in the court and tougher than she is when with her Shadows. She constantly asserts she can do something only to become paralyzed with inaction. It was incredibly frustrating to read, but in the end I liked her (and the book) all the more for it. She’s a mess and it’s what makes the book more realistic.
I liked Soren. His character is interesting. He’s a man living in a society that has certain expectations and demands certain sacrifices to be made. He wants to do good but he has done, and continues to do, so much bad. I think my biggest problem with him was that because it’s so easy to like him, it’s too easy to overlook that he still makes terrible choices, and then we try to reason that he did what he did because he had to. But he didn’t have to, and it made me uncomfortable to still find myself rooting for him in the end.
The other characters need more fleshing out. I couldn’t stand Cress. She was shallow, self-centered, and flakey. How can she claim to be a friend and yet consistently turn a blind eye to the reality of Theo’s life in the court? Eh, I just don’t see any actual good in her. I spent most of the book wanting to throttle her. Blaise is Theo’s closest childhood friend from before her country was invaded and is definitely a romantic interest. He is one of her Shadows and plays a huge role from the beginning in trying to help Theo figure out what she wants and how to get it. But despite all this I just can’t care too much about him because we’re not given enough info on him. The two other rebels working with her (her other Shadows) Heron and Art are awesome and I really would have enjoyed reading more backstory on all of them. They were pretty major in Theo’s attempt to succeed in taking down the court from the inside and yet they were only given a couple paragraphs each about their pasts.
I LOVED the Kaiserin! Oh man, I could have read an entire book just about her and her backstory. What an intriguing woman. But again she is only given a few paragraphs and then nothing. Then there was the Kaiser…What a completely one dimensional caricature of a villian. He’s just soooo evil! He kills this person for no reason, stares lecherously at that too young serving girl, tortures this person for his own pleasure, etc. All of these things are obviously there to tell us just how purely evil and abhorrent he is and yet I felt…nothing. I just didn’t care at all. There was nothing about him that I found compelling, and so he fell flat.
I do feel like most of the issues I have with the book are ones that can be resolved in the next one in the series. More character development, more depth to the world and more dimension to the big bad.