Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia’s family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess–a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner. For ten years Theo has been a captive in her own palace. She’s endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside. Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hope of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword. And power isn’t always won on the battlefield. For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.
I went into this book expecting to be slightly disappointed. I had a mild interest in it and managed to get a hardcover edition for pretty cheap, so I thought I’d pick it up sooner than I otherwise would’ve. I was ready to be underwhelmed because I feel like the last few times I’ve picked up a YA fantasy novel (that’s the first in a series or standalone), it’s been nothing new. I thought this book would be full of tropes and completely typical but a lot of the expected disappointments weren’t there. This book isn’t anything wholly untypical or unique. I don’t think it’s bringing anything new or fresh to the YA fantasy genre because the basis of it is one we’re all familiar with but Sebastian definitely put her own spin on it and wrote a great story that dispels a lot of what is typical in this type of story.
I want to talk about the characters first because they continued to surprise me throughout the story. I think they were written incredibly well. There were definitely some more tropey aspects of each of them, but they weren’t complete tropes and were well developed and dimensional. Theo, the main character, is a young girl who’s the rightful queen of her country that’s been overtaken by the Kalovaxian Kaiser and she lives under his rule. That’s nothing new but Theo was an interesting character. She had gotten so used to acting a certain way she lost sight of exactly what was acting and who she really was. I enjoyed watching her figure that out while trying to not just survive, but escape and dismantle the structure of the Kaiser’s hold. I didn’t like how quickly she was able to switch from cowering girl to plotting, smart and cunning spy. I can mostly buy it because she was raised in the court and had been raised to be queen for six years so she has to have some knowledge but it was instantaneous. That really bothered me for a while, but I got past it and enjoyed her plotting. She went through great character development. Søren was the most surprising character. I was annoyed at his very first appearance in the book because I knew exactly where it was going—and I wasn’t wrong about that—but I was wrong about him. I don’t love the stoic, broody warrior trope (I complain about it on here whenever I read it) and that’s all I was expecting from him. His doubt, uncertainty and the fact that he wasn’t the typical deny-every-feeling-you-have type was refreshing. He was softer than I’d expected and a lot more dimensional and real. I hate to keep using the word “surprise” but Cress, Theo’s only friend, really surprised me. I wanted to dislike her and write her off as the vapid airhead she could’ve easily been but she showed Theo a lot of kindness that was hard to ignore. I was unsure of her for most of the book but towards the end, she really tipped the scales in one direction but I won’t tell you which. Blaise was a more typical character that filled a more typical role but I still liked him, especially for the bits of Theo’s childhood he helped reveal.
Y’all know I love some complicated relationships and this book is loaded with them. I really enjoyed watching Theo try to balance the roles she was playing, all while fighting the sense that she was losing sight of who she really was or if she ever really knew who she was. I have to address the love triangle. I’ve seen it referred to as such more than once but not once did it ever come across to me as a regular love triangle à la Bella-Edward-Jacob. It just didn’t seem like one. Her feelings got messy while attempting to manipulate someone and the stirrings of a more slow burn romance with someone she actually knows and who knows more of her developed. There was no competition, no fighting over the girl as a sort of prize. Though it got predictably complicated with Søren, I felt like lines were still drawn and Theo still knew where she stood deep down even as those lines blurred. My favorite relationship in the book was definitely Theo and Cress’ friendship. It was complicated because you couldn’t ignore that parts of it were very real and that they did love each other even though they were on two different sides. Watching it change and seeing Theo realize certain things about it was one of my favorite parts. I’m still shocked by the state of it at the end.
The writing was well done, too and I think the world building was good, not great, but I liked basically everything I read. It was nothing super unique but I’m still a sucker for a world with gods and magic and issues of the royal variety. I liked the bits that showed the differences between Kalovaxian and Astrean culture and would’ve liked to know even more about Theo’s country before the siege.
The actual plot of this story was strong and compelling even though it’s nothing new, as I said. I guessed how it would all end in a big picture way, but there were tons of little surprises along the way. I found it gripping and entertaining and really have no complaints about the story itself. It was a slower plot with lots of scheming and plotting the manipulation of people around her but I was fully invested in it. There was political intrigue, as well. I was shocked by the very end of the story. How it all unfolded was unexpected and left me wanting more. I look forward to reading the next book in the series next year.
Have you read Ash Princess? Let me know what you thought in the comments!
Thanks for reading,