YA novels often involve a search for identity. If you’re looking for a tale about identity that involves royalty, magic, and a rebellion, Laura Sebastian’s Ash Princess might fit the bill. Please read on for the review.
Back Cover Blurb
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.
Ash Princess seems targeted toward the YA audience who wants a royal teenage rebel but prefers reading about palace scenes rather than combat maneuvers. Even though the book includes a map of the country of Astrea, it’s not that helpful because almost everything takes place at the Astrean palace, and the primary battlefield is the web of lies and intrigue surrounding the court.
Our main character is Theodosia, Princess of Astrea, a land blessed with magical gems. When she was six, the Kalovaxians, a warlike people who are like a cross between Vikings and Nazis, invaded her country, killed her mother the Queen, and enslaved the Astreans. However, instead of sending Theodosia to the Spiritgem mines like the rest of her populace, the Kalovaxian Kaiser changed her name to Thora and kept her in the palace, where she is beaten whenever the Astreans cause trouble.
Ten years later, the last Astrean rebel leader is captured. Thora is forced to execute him, but before he dies, Thora learns her true relationship to him. The incident forces her to remember her duty to her people, and when the remaining rebels make contact with her, she gives up a chance to escape, choosing instead to spy on the people who imprisoned her.
There’s a lot going on in this story: magic, oppressed slaves, a castle with secret passageways, ruthless conquerors, an ambush against another country, romance, murmurs of a new military weapon. However, the main focus is the identity of our main character. Who is she really? The narrative uses three names (Theodosia/Thora/Theo) that highlight how she views herself, the roles she’s trying to play, and what she strives to become. This plays out primarily on two interweaving fronts: the spy game and the love triangle.
Despite getting beaten and humiliated at king’s orders on a regular basis, Theodosia not only gets to occupy the same space as the most powerful Kalovaxians in the land, she’s even endeared herself to one of them: Crescentia, the daughter of the Kaiser’s general. Even though Crescentia’s father killed Theodosia’s mother, the girls are best friends, and Crescentia trusts Thora wholeheartedly. As improbable as that relationship sounds, it does make for interesting internal turmoil when Theodosia starts deceiving her unwitting friend for the rebel cause.
That internal turmoil is matched by that caused by the Kaiser’s son Soren. The polar opposite of his self-absorbed, underhanded, ignoble father, the handsome prince falls in love with Theodosia. (Conveniently, she only carries scars on her back so that she’s still a pretty princess despite all her beatings.) What results is a surprisingly compelling star-crossed lovers scenario that only intensifies when we discover that Soren’s feelings toward Theodosia are more complex than she first realizes.
Unfortunately, the chemistry between Theodosia and the other leg of the love triangle doesn’t quite work. Blaise is an escaped slave and the equivalent of the “boy next door” from Theodosia’s childhood. He and the other two Astreans who have managed to infiltrate the palace are initially distrustful toward Theodosia, partly because they’re unsure where her loyalties lie, partly because they question her abilities. The fact that she’s been well fed in a palace while her people are starving in mines doesn’t help. As such, there’s a lot of initial squabbling between Theodosia and Blaise. However, when they plot to have Theodosia seduce Soren, the subsequent conversation about Theodosia’s first kiss seems way out of character for former slaves who’ve supposedly suffered rape and other unspeakable atrocities. So when Blaise kisses Theodosia, it feels forced, like it’s only there to achieve a plot point. And when Theodosia’s feelings go back and forth between Soren and Blaise, she just comes off as fickle.
Another weakness of the story is backstory of the Kalovaxian invasion. Supposedly, Astrea was an idyllic country where everyone was unified under their strong, beautiful Queen. In addition, it was the only place where people wielded magic. Theodosia remarks at the opening about the astounding superhuman powers Astrean magic users possessed that the Kalovaxians have never been able to imitate. And despite this great advantage, they fell—in fairly short order—before their magicless conquerors, and it’s never made clear how.
The strategies of Theodosia’s rebel companions are equally baffling. At one point, Theodosia steals Spiritgems, making it possible for one of the rebels to cast illusions and another to become invisible. Yet they shove the job of poisoning the Kalovaxian general and his daughter onto Theodosia. While it does provide more for Theodosia to agonize over, strategically it makes a lot more sense for the invisible guy to do it. Instead, they use their powers to hover over Theodosia when she goes to a masquerade ball.
As for the end of the story, it’s not really the end of the story. Like so many books in this genre, it concludes with the end of a battle and the beginnings of an uprising. While the final chapters reveal some intriguing connections between the cast, I don’t feel sufficiently invested the world of Astrea to read on about its ultimate fate.
Ash Princess presents a tale in which a captive princess must cast off her slave persona and find the inner fortitude to become the queen her people need. While it takes us on an interesting internal journey about self-identity, the novel’s external conflicts left me scratching my head at times. However, if you aren’t as interested in those kinds of details and just want a story where a beautiful princess defies an unquestionably evil enemy while wearing pretty gowns and having two boys fall in love with her, then give this book a try.
First published at The Fandom Post.