4.5 stars for this YA fantasy novel.
Ash Princess is the first in an exciting new fantasy series by Laura Sebastian. The princess of the title is Theodosia Eirene Houzzara, Princess of Astrea. Astrea was conquered by the Kalovaxians when Theo was six, her mother the queen was slain before her eyes, and the kingdom was annexed to Kalovaxia. Theo lives on in the palace but everything has changed: she is a defenceless pawn held by the tyrannical and sadistic Kaiser who delights in having her whipped; she is isolated by having three Shadows report her every move so that, for example, eye contact with Astrean slaves results in their deaths; and she is forbidden even her own name, being given the mocking title of Ash Princess and having to answer to the name Thora.
Now 16 years old, Theo/Thora’s life is a jarring mix of sophistication and savagery. While Astrean slaves are half-starved, she attends banquets and dances. She has her own servant to dress her but the servant’s mouth is sewn up. She has a friend in Crescentia who has saved her from bullying and worse at court but Cress is daughter of the Theyn who killed Theo’s mother. Theo, rightful queen of Astrea, is subjugated and although she might seethe underneath, her words and actions show complete submission to the Kaiser in her bid to survive.
This all changes after an Astrean rebel leader is captured and Theo is forced to kill him. The other rebels in the palace make a bid to rescue her and take her away to safety outside Astrea but she manages to persuade them that an uprising is still possible without their leader, that the Astreans might be freed and rally around her as their queen. Theo wants to save her people, not only herself, as they lead miserable lives as slaves, many of them forced to mine magical Spirit Gems. This is not only hard work but dangerous as exposure to the magic there often leads to mine-madness and death.
This novel is good from the start but as it progresses the plots, tests, humilations and acts of savagery and betrayal accumulate and accelerate, making the book impossible to put down. The relationships Theo has with the other characters become more and more fascinating too, for instance in the exploration of the complex layers of affection, love, jealousy, fear, condescension, hate, kindness and rivalry that go to make up Theo and Cress’s friendship – by the end of the book this has become elecrifying! The love interests in the story are well-written too as Theo struggles to understand what she feels for childhood friend-turned-rebel Blaise and for the Kaiser’s son Søren. The tension between love and duty is beautifully done and the reader is never quite sure just what Theo is capable of deciding and carrying out.
Ash Princess is a really good read that I highly recommend. But I have to warn you that you will race to the finish and be desperate to read more only to find that the sequel Lady Smoke is not due out until Spring 2019 – I’m not sure how I can wait that long!
I received this ebook free from NetGalley in return for an honest review. UK publication: 14 June 2018 by Macmillan.