Ash Princess: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Ash Princess by Laura SebastianTen years ago invaders killed Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen of Astrea, enslaved her people, and stole her name.

Over many long years, Theo has learned how to play the game. Don’t anger the Kaiser and stay alive. She plays along with his manipulations, silently accepts his punishments, and hides behind the persona of Thora–the meek girl the Kaiser thinks she has become.

But when Theo is forced to do the unthinkable she reaches a breaking point.

Survival is no longer enough. After years of hiding, it’s time for Theo to fight and reclaim everything that has been stolen in Ash Princess (2018) by Laura Sebastian.

Ash Princess is Sebastian’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy.

Sebastian’s richly described world, complex elemental magic, and fraught politics add new twists to this familiar story. Unfortunately one element that remains the same is that the enslaved Astreans are “tawny skinned” and dark haired while the invading Kalovoxians are pale and blonde–a common trope that is played out and could do with more unpacking in this and other similar titles.

Theo is a survivor who has learned how to hide in plain sight. Because of her small world and her captivity her first person narration often feels claustrophobic as she struggles to plot her way out of the Kaiser’s clutches.

Ash Princess’s promising in contrived plot is marred by an erratic timeline that brings Theo’s interactions with the Kaiser’s son Prinz Søren from calculated seduction as part of an assassination attempt to actual love in the blink of an eye. Theo’s shift from trying to keep herself alive while waiting for a rescue that never comes shifts equally fast to Theo placing herself in the center of a rebellion plot as a spy.

Theo’s perilous situation and the high stakes of the story are not enough to distract from a second half that drags while characters dither over who to trust, who to love, and (perhaps most relevantly) who to kill. While Theo is an interesting and strong heroine, she is not always sympathetic with unclear motivations for her numerous poor decisions throughout the book.

Ash Princess is an entertaining, plot-driven fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy angsty and their characters morally ambiguous at best.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Everless by Sara Holland, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene

For a Muse of Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Didn’t I tell you earlier? You don’t have to trust someone to make a deal with them. You only have to have something you know they want.”

cover art for For a Muse of Fire by Heidi HeiligWith luck and determination, Jetta hopes that she and her parents can parlay their fame as shadow players in Chakrana into passage to Aquitan where shadow plays are in high demand.

There are rumors that the Mad King values nothing so much as shadow plays and Jetta hopes that garnering the king’s favor could also give her access to the spring that has cured the king’s madness–something Jetta desperately wants for her own malheur.

But notoriety of any kind is dangerous with so many secrets behind the scrim.

Jetta’s puppets move without string or stick. Instead she uses her blood to bind recently deceased souls into her puppets–one of the old ways that is now forbidden in the wake of La Victoire and the imprisonment of Le Trépas at the hands of the colonial army from Aquitan.

With danger lurking everywhere Jetta will have to confront uncomfortable truths and terrible choices as she considers how much she and her family have already sacrificed to get to Aquitan and how much more they still have to lose in For a Muse of Fire (2018) by Heidi Heilig.

For a Muse of Fire is the start of Heilig’s new trilogy. An author’s note explains that Jetta’s malheur is bipolar disorder–a mental illness she shares with Heilig.

This series starter is fast-paced and high-action while also offering readers a thoughtful commentary on the long lasting ramifications of war and colonization. Chakrana and Aquitan are inspired by Asian cultures as well as French colonialism which comes through in cultural touchstones including food, dress, and language.

Jetta’s first person narration is broken up with various ephemera including telegraph transcripts, flyers, songs, and play scenes featuring other characters. This technique works well to flesh out the novel by offering a wider view of the story and allowing other characters to take over the narrative action whenever Jetta’s focus becomes more internal as she tries to negotiate both a dangerous world and her own malheur.

For a Muse of Fire is as engrossing as it is violent. Heilig’s world building is richly imagined and carefully layered with nothing quite as it seems. Jetta’s malheur colors not only her perceptions throughout the story but many of her actions with reckless decisions during episodes of mania and listless lows with clarity and introspection often coming too late.

For a Muse of Fire is a dramatic story with an inclusive cast, high stakes, and an intense cliffhanger that will leave readers clamoring for the next installment. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Clariel by Garth Nix, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the July 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a Starred Review*

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone: A Review

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat RosenfieldBecca is just getting ready to leave her small town behind for good when the dead girl is found. Suddenly Becca’s plan to go to college and never look back seems trivial at best. It seems like the peak of hubris to think Becca can get away when the dead girl could not.

Paralyzed by the shock of this sudden violence, Becca isn’t sure what to believe when her future–even the future in general–seems impossible to fathom in Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone (2012)by Kat Rosenfield.

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is Rosenfield’s first novel.

Becca’s first-person narrative is intercut with short chapters outlining the moments that lead to the unidentified dead girl’s–Amelia Anne’s–murder.

Rosenfield’s writing is lush and highly literary with vivid, often unsettling, descriptions of Becca’s surroundings and the scenes that lead to Amelia Anne’s murder.

The mystery aspect is handled well here. Although it was possible to guess the ending early on, the pieces of the puzzle still twisted in a direction that was difficult to anticipate. Although the plot meanders with Becca’s doubts and fears, the story is generally solid.

The chapters about Amelia are particularly well-done as they illustrate Amelia’s growth as she comes into her own before her life is cut tragically short. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is a frank and unflinching story. Both Becca and Amelia do not shy away from talking about sex or other topics in their narratives. That said, it would have been nice to have a little more context when Amelia talks to her boyfriend about rougher behavior (Specifically she says to him: “Haven’t you ever thought about grabbing me from behind and throwing me against the wall? Just taking what you wanted?”). After the topic is initially raised there is not, unfortunately, any talk of consent and instead the chapter ends abruptly with no further discussion.

Unfortunately there isn’t much sense of character here. The only person readers really know is Amelia while Becca feels more like a convenient frame for a mystery that wouldn’t flesh out into a full novel. Becca rarely comes across as truly real and Amelia’s chapters stretch the limits of an omniscient narrator when combined with the first person structure of the rest of the novel. The secondary characters are painted with sharp vignettes that remain closer to caricature than actual characterization.

The narrative voice never quite works with many different tones competing in one slim book. In addition to Becca’s first-person musings there are also third-person chapters about Amelia. In addition, Becca’s narrative often goes off on tangents about the hive mind of small towns and the “we” mentality that often develops as a result. These  “we” passages feel lofty.

While this was an interesting story about cause and effect and the lingering impact of consequences it still feels more like a literary exercise than a mystery novel. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is, however, undoubtedly well-written and demonstrates that Rosenfield is an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: Find Me by Romily Bernand, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anna Heltzel, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Acceleration by Graham McNamee, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233 by Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams