3.5 out of 5 stars | Goodreads review
Well I’ll be damned. This was pretty good!
To be more specific, I had abysmally low expectations for Ash Princess. The first 30 pages or so told me this was full of all the princess YA tropes we love to hate and hate to love. And you know… I’m all for that shit. I love princesses and the ragtag rise to power formula. Rarely is it done with 1) good writing and 2) a novel and compelling way. Ash Princess at least nails the 1st part with pretty decent writing. I did have to wait until page 400 for things to get rolling, but I’ll definitely pick up the sequel, Lady Smoke.
The ending of this book is way stronger than the beginning. I will say the last 50 pages pulled me over the edge of 3 stars. If I had to point out things I definitely didn’t want to see, it would be the childhood friend route romance with Blaise. More like BLEHse. I’ll give Sebastian credit because she sets up an interesting “mine madness” story for him in the next book, but I was never a fan of him in this installment. Also knock off that love polygon nonsense if Erik is included in this love geometry. I got the romo-vibes from him too.
To be honest, I never really bought the premise of this book. Once I got over that, I could live with the stupid ass decision from the the Theyn to let Theo live. Literally his undoing. I actually thought it was the Kaiser who made the decision, but he could have killed Theo anyway. I didn’t buy that it was a logical decision to let her live, but we needed a plot set up where our MC is the princess! Second thing I didn’t buy was that Theo awoke from her slumber and Thora was no more. I was never convinced there was a difference between Theo and Thora, and maybe Sebastian intentionally left it like that to show that Theo was wavering. However, the Kalovaxians are portrayed as 100% in the wrong as the invaders even if Søren and Cress (sorta) were personally sympathetic toward Theo. A lot of drama could have been avoided if Theo just ok’d Cress’s death. There’s always one girl that ain’t down with murder and that girl is Theodosia Eirene Houzzah, Ash Princess, Queen of Astrea blah blah blah.
I also didn’t really buy Søren’s initial attraction to Theo, but again once I got past the initial disbelief, I was on board. I really like Søren, ok? I liked his relationship with Erik too. JFC. I didn’t want to. I tried to resist. Even though there’s not as much page time dedicated to character development in this book, there’s room to develop them more in the next one. Also did we need this much romance? We got people to liberate, pirate ships to sail, do we have the time to be doing the kissy-kiss? Whatever, I personally would like Theo/Søren to happen, as shady the dynamic some people may find the relationship to have. I LIKE IT?
One of the main issues I had with this book was Theo, Thora, Theodosia Eirene Houzzah, Ash Princess, Queen of Astrea herself. I know she’s a political prisoner who’s been under surveilance for a decade and maybe she couldn’t develop her own complete persona without it being muddled by that Kalovaxian kool-aid, but would it kill her to have a little more personality? ACTUALLY MAYBE IT WOULD, but since we start out with Astrean torture porn as the setting, I couldn’t really get invested in Astrea and the Astrean people. Yeah, they’re the standard oppressed nation of people. I actually thought given how cliche the setting is, the types of systematic oppression weren’t overdone in terms of brutality. It didn’t seem like it was PURELY for shock value. Sebastian seems to have put some thought and care to not write a generic oppressed people flippantly. So, noice.
Since I couldn’t invest in Astrea, I had to turn to Theo and HER investment in Astrea. Which was… wishy-washy, as it was intended to be. If I couldn’t get her investment in Astrea… maybe I could get invested in the depth of her character? Oh??? Nope, not much there either. Theo doesn’t carry the story enough for me to be invested in that “liberate my people” pirate princess tirade I want her to go one. There was an attempt to give her some depth with her vacillating with trying to kill Cress and Søren, but again – I’m not invested in Astrea’s cause and the Kalos already look bad and are in the wrong. It’s kind of hard to disagree that there needs to be change. It’s clear that Cress is too far in the Kalo kool-aid pool party and it’s clear that Søren’s got the hots for Theo and also doesn’t want to be like the Kaiser. There’s no evidence of Theo being smart or strategic enough to realize that and make executive decisions based on what she sees. It’s almost like the plot is guiding her rather than vice versa. Again, it makes sense when you analyze it because she was never free to make those type of executive decisions, but this made Thora/Theo a frustrating character to follow around for 400 freaking pages. The last few chapters were good because Theo and Søren eloped and goddamn I was waiting for it for too long. Too long for Theo do choose to do something.
Overall, I think Ash Princess’ strength lies in its writing. In terms of depth of the writing, this is a bit higher tier than average YA lost princess fantasies. This book, however, is lacking in characters that pop off the pages. As much insight we are given to the characters’ backstories, I can’t say this is a character driven book. The Kaiser is this typical cruel dude who murders his family for power. Not revolutionary in anyway. The plot is understandably slower-paced and based off of navigating society as a political prisoner. I can’t blame Theo for not being an action-bound pirate princess right off the bat. But god, I wish she would have gone “fuck Blaise, fuck Søren, fuck Erik, fuck the Kaiser, I’m off to liberate my people as a warrior pirate princess even if I never come back from this journey I want my people to be safe.” She’s not that type fo character, though – she’s cautious and unsure whether her people would fight for her, so she’s not willing to make any bold moves too eagerly. I can only dream I see one of those characters in my lifetime that do.
Another gripe I had with this book – I know Theo was only 6 when the siege happened, but Astrean culture as it was presented to us was deeply lacking. A lot of it was lost, I get it. But I couldn’t get invested in the actual conflict of the book because I didn’t give a rats ass about the generic opppressed Astreans. I appreciate that Sebastian was careful in the end not to overstep her bounds and make the entire book “Astrean Torture Porn – the Revised Edition.” She does draw inspiration from real world tactics of oppressors oppressing/trying to erase a culture of people they took over – from overt to microaggressions. These Germanic-ish blond, blue eyed Kalovaxians are clearly in the wrong. Astreans seem innocent and generically fantasy oppressed™. It’s not exactly the most inventive route to take when developing fictional nations and people. There’s a little bit of detail about old Astrean customs with the food, clothing, etc. and comparing it to Kalo-controlled Astrea. It’s drawn from real world examples, I’m sure, of cultural appropriation and those in power degrading the people they conquered but ya know, they like their stuff. It’s subtle that maybe people won’t realize the first time they read, but it was hella obvious to me that maybe we’ve seen some stuff on twitter threads wrt social justice. I’d say this is more skillfully done than a lot of YA fantasy, but not particularly revolutionary. Not bad. Just not revolutionary.
SO YEAH TL;DR – Good writing. Meh characters, plot and world. Nothing revolutionary done with a generic premis, but the ending is good, though. Will read the next one.
EDIT: I fucking forgot to talk about Cress. I hated her so much. I like that Laura Sebastian had the balls to make her the enemy in the end. And everything she was supposed to be (beautiful, future kaiserin) was stripped away from her. Poetic justice, ah. Wished she had more depth in the beginning, as I do for all the other characters, instead of waiting for everything to be revealed for the sake of intrigue and a sense of mystery.
Also I wish there weren’t any sad gays in this book. And the only other gay thing is that Demeter and water goddess origin story for the silk flower holiday, which I CALLED and then Sebastian provided 😀