I work at an online bookshop so we get loads of proof copies of new books sent in by publishers. A few uncorrected proofs of Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian were in the latest batch, so I took one home with me to read. I hadn’t read any YA fantasy in years, and I’d been meaning to get back into it for a while, so I was intrigued. This is my spoiler-free review.
First off, I would like to offer a content warning. This book, although a fantasy, deals with very real issues such as abuse, sexual assault, murder, and slavery.
The story follows Theodosia (also known as Theo or Thora), the princess and daughter of the Fire Queen of Astrea. When she was six years old, Theo’s mother was killed and her country invaded by Kalovaxians, who are ruled and commanded by the cruel Kaiser. Ten years later, the Kalovaxians still occupy Astrea and Theo is kept in the palace as a trophy. She is routinely humiliated and beaten whenever any Astreans are caught trying to revolt and carries countless scars on her back to prove it. Shortly after the invasion, her name was beaten out of her and she was forced to go by the false name Thora. This first book in a planned series is the story of Thora becoming Theodosia once more and her quest to reclaim her country, free her people, and take her place as the rightful queen of Astrea.
It took me a few chapters to really get into Ash Princess, but I don’t think that’s due to any fault of the book itself. I’m not going to lie, I went through a slightly pretentious phase at college and university where I kind of looked down on YA fantasy and YA in general, even though only a few years before I absolutely lived for that stuff. It was during a module on Children’s Literature at university that my eyes were opened and I realised that YA literature is not only valuable and worthy of study, but also one of the most commercially successful genres in the world – so it must be doing something right! Unfortunately, I’ve been so busy since graduation, with a TBR a mile long, that I’ve only just now started getting back into YA – but I’m looking forward to reading loads of it!
A lot happens very quickly in this book: after some major life-changing events for the MC had taken place, I was shocked to discover I was still only on chapter two. At first this was slightly jarring, but it makes sense the further you read because you realise that this book has a LOT of action packed into its 400 or so pages, so there’s no time for waffling. It definitely succeeds in grabbing your attention! You get immediately pulled into the action in this story, and the fast pace and intriguing plot kept me turning the pages until the very end.
While I’m not too fond of the love triangle trope, Sebastian uses it well and manages to avoid making it cringe-worthy and painful to read (a skill many other authors lack). Theo doesn’t spend dozens of pages umming and ahhing about which love interest is best – she’s got much more important things to worry about. Her romantic concerns are entirely secondary to the violence, politics, and revolution of the main plot – as they should be! There are moments when Theo falters and struggles with her romantic feelings, but this only emphasises how young she is – and the fact that she has missed out on and still is missing out on a normal, happy childhood – thus compounding the difficulty of the position she is in.
Theo’s character and the decisions she makes may not always be likeable, but they are understandable. She is in such an impossible position – under constant surveillance and routinely punished, she has no freedom or peace to speak of, but she seeks to restore peace and freedom to her kingdom. Not to mention she is only sixteen years old! She is torn between her duties as the rightful queen of her country and her desire to live like a normal teenage girl (or as much as she can do, as a political prisoner). Juggling the multiple identities of timid prisoner, loyal friend, and fierce queen is no easy task, and I think she does a better job of it than most people in her position would.
Not every character is quite as complicated as Theo. The Kaiser is so incredibly cruel and evil that you can easily imagine him torturing new-born kittens with glee. While this may make him seem slightly two-dimensional to some, I personally think it’s a fairly accurate, if exaggerated, representation of the way toxic behaviour can take over every aspect of someone’s personality – especially if it has gone unchecked their entire life. It is also quite possible that the reason he comes across as 100% Pure Evil is because of Theo’s first-person narration – everything we know about the Kaiser is filtered through her, so it is natural that she would demonise him, after everything he has done to her. When we do have face-to-face encounters with the Kaiser (albeit still through Theo), we do get truly visceral descriptions of the pain and abuse that he inflicts – so even if Theo is biased, she’s not far off the mark. As villains go, he’s pretty freaking despicable.
I absolutely loved the worldbuilding in this novel. Because of the main character’s limited perspective (she rarely leaves the palace grounds), we don’t get to see very much of Astrea, but there are hints throughout the story that Astrea and the world outside of it are large, complex settings each with their own cultures, people, and problems. I would love the chance to see more of this world, so I’ll definitely be picking up the next book!
Ash Princess is published in the UK by Pan Macmillan on 14th June 2018, and in the US by Delacorte Press on 24th April 2018. You can pre-order your copy here.