Book Review: Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Ash Princess (Ash Princess Trilogy #1) by Laura Sebastian
Published by Delacorte BfYR on April 24th, 2018
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 432
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Queen of Flame and Fury, was murdered before her eyes. Ten years later, Theo has learned to survive under the relentless abuse of the Kaiser and his court as the ridiculed “Ash Princess.” Pretending to be empty-headed and naive when she's not enduring brutal whippings, she pushes down all other thoughts but one: Keep the Kaiser happy and he will keep you safe.

When the Kaiser forces her to execute her last hope of rescue, Theo can't keep her feelings and memories pushed down any longer. She vows revenge, throwing herself into a plot to seduce and murder the Kaiser's warrior son with the help of a group of magically gifted and volatile rebels. But Theo doesn't expect to develop feelings for the Prinz. Or for her rebel allies to challenge her friendship with the one person who's been kind to her throughout the last hopeless decade: her heart's sister, Cress.

Cornered into impossible choices and unable to trust even those who are on her side, Theo will have to decide how far she's willing to go to save her people and how much of herself she's willing to sacrifice to become queen.

That. Was. Awesome.

Ash Princess was exactly the book I was looking for when I picked it up. It's been so long since I've read a YA fantasy with princes and princesses, swords, court intrique, and things of that nature. It's a favorite subgenre of mine and it felt like coming home every time I picked it up again. The blurb promises vengeance and complicated relationships and boy does it deliver. I just love when a book says it's going to be something and it just IS. If you're looking for a high stakes magical adventure, look no further.

First thing's first, I took an immediate liking to Theo. She has many faces - Lady Thora, the Ash Princess who cows to the Kalovaxia conquerers; Queen Theodosia, her mother's daughter and the hope of her people; and simply Theo, the girl underneath both of those outer layers, with hopes and wishes and feelings all her own. I think it's incredibly difficult to write a character who slips into this different personas, but Sebastian did so masterfully. The inner turmoil Theo puts herself through just to survive a single day in the Kaiser's court is palpable, and she struggles each time she has to use a different identity. But she does it, because she's strong and she's angry and if she wants to succeed, she doesn't have a choice. That's another thing I really love about Theo: she makes the hard decisions. It takes her an understandably long time to get to that conclusion, but she will do what she needs to do. I've heard her be called a Slytherin and honestly I've never heard anything truer in my life. She is cunning, she is resourceful, and she is ambitious.

I also really, really enjoyed Crescentia, or Cress, Theo's closest "friend." Of course, Theo can't actually trust a Kalovaxian, especially the daughter of a the man who murdered Theo's mother. But Cress has been the only one to show her kindness in the decade that Theo has been prisoner. I thought Cress was one of the more interesting characters because while the others had very clear motivations and goals, Cress kept her plans close. She comes off as a vapid, spoiled brat, but it soon becomes clear that she's much more than that. She is another Slytherin through-and-through. There are THINGS that happen to Cress late in the book that make me so, soooo excited to see what she gets up to in the sequel. Plus, I loved how the author played this trope of two friends in a rivalry over a boy. It could be looked at as an easy trope to pit two girls against one another, but nothing is as simple as it seems with Cress or with Theo.

I also thought this world was incredibly interesting. The Kalovaxians are almost a nomadic people, except instead of just staying on the move, the take hold of other countries, wipe out their people and their resources, and then move onto the next unsuspecting country. There's no true Kalovaxia anymore, which I found intriguing. There's not even a Kalovaxian throne; the kaiser uses Theo's throne throughout the book, living in the Asrtean palace,  using Astrean food, clothing, etc. I haven't seen a group of truly monstrous people like this, and I can't deny that I found them frightening. Theo obviously did not get out of the palace often, but she saw enough people to hear whispers of other foreign lands, both free and under the Kaiser's tyranny, that I know there's a vast and rich world out there that I can't wait to explore further.

Astrea was the first nation the Kalovaxian's have conquered to have any magic. And I loved the magic system. There are gems, which act as sort of conduits for elemental magic. But only those blessed by the gods, who have completed years of worship and devotion in the gem mines, may use the magic. If you are not blessed, and spend too much time in the mines, you will go mad. If you use the magic without being blessed, you are committing the ultimate blasphemy and will not be received in the afterlife. This made things hard on Theo who has an obvious calling to multiple different elements. Using this magic would obviously make it much easier for her to accomplish her goals, but doing so puts her immortal soul at risk.

Thematically, there is so much explored in Ash Princess. There is a clear, racial divide among the Astreans and the Kalovaxians - and, from what I gather, every nation the Kalovaxian's have conquered. This opens up discussions of racism, slavery, and cultural appropriation. I thought the author did a wonderful job of clearly explaining those theories through actual actions the characters do, through different scenes in the book, instead of just dumping into the readers' laps. Of course, blanket trigger warnings abound for the corporal punishment, the slavery, and the capture of people of color.

I just thought Ash Princess was great. Maybe it could have gone deeper and darker in some places, and it does rely on tropes (but in a fun way, not in a lazy way.) But I was gripped from the very first page. Laura Sebastian has a gift for putting you on the edge of your seat; I felt real anxiety reading this because I loved the characters and knew how horrible and cruel the villain could be. In a moment it could all come crashing down with the most dire of consequences. Looking for a fun, exciting YA fantasy with deeper themes that apply to our real world? Read Ash Princess; you will not be disappointed.

1 comment

  1. Yessss. I just finished the other day and couldn't have put it any better! It's not perfect, but it's it's an enthralling read that you can't put down. Theo was definitely my favorite part, though I can't wait to see Cress in the next book too. Ooooooh that last scene with her!

    Rachel @ Paper Cuts