Ash Princess has one of the YA-iest titles and covers I’ve seen, and the story within is also incredibly trope-y and YA-ish. This is not, however, a jibe, as I think it uses each of these tropes well, and though not entirely original, it’s compelling enough that I read it in one sitting!
Book: Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided by Netgalley for fair review
Here’s a quick run-down of the tropes you’ll find in this book:
- A princess
- Who must fight against an evil king to reclaim her throne
- Oh wait, a boy from her past!
- Oh wait, a handsome prince!
- To rebel, she must seduce one and battle her feelings for the other.
- Oh no wait we said only seduce, not fall for!
- Did I mention she’s 17? Did she mention it on this page yet?
- And uncommonly beautiful (though she’d never agree)
- (She’s the spitting image of her dead mother of course)
- Also she may or may not have repressed magic powers.
So yeah. You’ve seen the bones of this story a lot. But I really would reiterate that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are flashes of uniqueness throughout. I very much liked the way that Theo/Thora/Theodosia (more on that later) is a political prisoner – the whole reason she’s still alive is that she is a useful PR stunt for the Kaiser. She gets beaten when her people rebel; she’s routinely humiliated to prove his power. It’s more interesting than her being in hiding while she waits to take back her throne, certainly, because she’s in the eye of the political storm, and it crystallises her loathing of the Kaiser and his people from something vague and patriotic to something personal and specific. It has a feel of Poison Study, or Throne of Glass, about it.
Theo isn’t the most active of heroines. She’s shoved about a fair bit, and her hand is often forced. I particularly wanted to shake her over her attraction to the Prinz, because seriously? He’s part of the system that enslaved you and killed everyone you love. Who cares how dreamy his eyes are? This wasn’t even insta-love, given that they’ve known each other for 10 years – she just turned around one day, and was like, oh, I want to hit that. And he didn’t notice her til then either! I found this relationship pretty hard to get behind. (Also, spoiler: there’s a story he tells her about his sad childhood and how he had to poison a bunch of cats that loved him, and this endears him to her. Nope. Cat-murdering is a massive turn off.) This completely stupid end of the love triangle reminded me of Shatter Me.
Oh, a quick content warning – this is aimed at the upper end of YA and has some dark moments. There is a really quite graphic scene where the Kaiser publically flogs Theo, and previous punishments are talked about a lot. There’s a brief couple of mentions of rape and other sexual assault in the context of a conquering army. It’s not too brutal, but I wouldn’t recommend it to younger readers.
One thing that’s done really nicely is the inclusion of the cultural appropriation that the Kalovaxians (the bad guys) perpetuate. The Astraeans (the good guys) are vaguely Greek in their names and fashions, and the Kalovaxians (vaguely German/Scandinavian) adopt their fashions in a way that Theo finds rather offensive. More importantly, they use the gemstones that the Astraean magic comes from, which are so holy that only a few people should be granted their use, as decoration and playthings. This is a factor you don’t often see in fantasy, so it’s cool to see it spoken about.
Speaking of the vague Greek-ness brings me on to the names. I know that YA heroines have to be obsessed with saying their own names, just like they always look into a mirror and enumerate their “flaws” (usually curly hair and freckles, sometimes stretch marks – thanks for the ego boost!). But here, our protagonist has so many names, and it’s incredibly, astonishingly tedious to hear her keep going on about it. She’s Thora when she’s obedient to the Kaiser; Theo to her old friends (which is a boys name anyway and should be Thea); Queen Theodosia when she needs to be strong. It’s brought up in almost every chapter. Like, we get it.
The plot progresses more or less as you would expect, and isn’t in any way shocking. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it bobs along nicely and doesn’t require too much focus to work out what’s happening. I think that the next book, Lady Smoke, has a lot of space for some twists, based on how this one ends. I hope we get more pirates, especially. I’ll be picking the sequel up, because despite my criticisms, I think this is a solid inclusion in the YA fantasy genre. Your reaction to it will be based entirely on your tolerance of tropes and your previous reading material. It’s a good, enjoyable book, which I think will have a lot of success.
Three out of five cats.