Actual rating: 4.5/5
I was definitely not expecting how good this book would be. First thing I thought was: obscure publisher, generic cover, and I've never heard of the author before. So I kind of bypassed this book when I came across it. However, I'd seen multiple reviews for it, so I finally picked it up because I felt like reading a good fantasy. I was blown away. This book was incredible! It had everything I wanted in a fantasy novel. It presented relationships differently than in contemporary YA, it had a strong but tortured lead, complex political machinations, enough secrecy to keep me intrigued, it slowly built on the character and her history, and featured a unique setting and plot.
This book was by no stretch one of your typical YA books. Most YA fantasies follow a similar route and have pretty homogenous themes. At first it unfolded like I had expected, but then we are introduced to bits and pieces of Yelena's background, and I knew this was going to be different than I had previously thought. We also see her outsmart and out-maneuvre cruel servants and poison tests. Her thoughts and ambitions are so admirable and relateable. I loved Yelena from start to end. She was strong, capable, and independent with just the right amount of sass.
Yelena grows up in a military country, where the land is ruled by Commander Ambrose. Whereas usually an author would present the Commander as an evil lead, Ambrose is actually just, even though he is a little rigid in his laws. He has his faults but also his strengths. Instead, there are other enemies that slowly progress and you learn more about. Some seem like enemies and turn out to be allies, others are bad from the start, and some are good and turn out bad, and I loved that mix. You never know who is going to turn on Yelena. This secrecy, about the characters and especially about Yelena's past, was extremely well thought out. It didn't seem like it was unplanned and the author was adding things in last minute to keep the story moving and interesting. Everything unfolded beautifully.
The setting was great as well. While there is magic, the Commander has forbidden its use. Most magically-inclined people have fled to a southern country, which prizes its magicians, who are seen as a threat to the Commander's country. Yelena is slowly exposed to this world of magic and politics, and neither felt like it didn't belong. Both are crucial to the plot.
My only fault was the romance. It wasn't enough showing, and too much telling in the beginning. It was hard to grasp how long Yelena and her love-interest were together, and when exactly she started liking him or not. You see glimpses of her starting to warm up to him, but after a certain point it was like, BAM, she loves him. It wasn't as thought out as the rest of the story. While this books has a TON of strengths, this one was the weakest link.
This book overall was fantastic. I recommend it to all fantasy fans. It also has a little bit of a dystopian feel with the Commander and the militarism of Yelena's country. There's so much intrigue, mystery, and cool concepts like poisons, acrobatics, and self-defense, that my brain almost exploded from the awesomeness.show more
by Janita Van Dyk