by Katie Moran
“Today is done, the time has come
for little birds to fly.
Tomorrow is near, the time is here
for old crows to die.”
Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian: A Review
(ARC of Ash Princess provided by Storybook Cove in Hanover, MA)
Laura Sebastian’s protagonist in her upcoming novel Ash Princess (set to release on 04/24/2018) is Princess Theodosia, also known as Thora or, to her readers, Theo. She has been living as a captive in her home country; everyone she’s known and loved has been killed or enslaved. A decade earlier, the Kalovaxian ships and their monstrous Kaiser arrived at the Astrean ports, slaughtering their way to the Astrean throne. The revered Astrean temples were burned to ash and the country’s citizens were forced into slavery, working in underground mines to unearth magical gems. Theo’s mother, the Queen of Fire and Fury and descendant of Houzzah the Fire God held her daughter’s hand as she was murdered, leaving Theodosia the only true heir to Astrea.
After ten years of enslavement and occupation, the Astreans are losing their sense of purpose and dignity though some, the few who have escaped captivity, work tirelessly againt the Kalovaxian Empire in small shows of defiance. Each show of resistance by the Astrean rebels not only results in executions and bloodbaths, but also proves cataclysmic for Theo. When we’re first introduced to her, she has stopped opposing the Kaiser. Instead she focuses on making herself as small as possible in an effort to avoid unwanted attention of any kind. Even her most persistent efforts prove futile for the Kaiser seeks to torment Theo as sport. Sparing her life when he murdered her mother was no act of kindness. The rightful heir of Astrea has been kept alive in order to keep her people in line; when they rebel, she is publicly brutalized, whipped and tortured. Each blow Theo endures solidifies the Kaiser’s absolute rule, slowly stripping away any remnants of Princess Theodosia. Theo is beaten and brutalized to the point of death in some instances, only to be healed enough to ensure her survival after. The Kaiser has gone so far as to rename her the Ash Princess, ensuring that none refer to her by her true title, not even Theo herself.
Abuse, in all of its forms, is at the center of this novel. Scenes of physical abuse are the most common and, perhaps, the hardest to deal with. However, Theo suffers much emotional and mental abuse as well, from enemies and friends alike. She is frequently the target of humiliation and degradation. At every event, she is forced to wear a crown molded of ash, a crumbling mockery of her lost heritage. The disintegrating crown represents the extinguishment of her lineage, of her mother’s rule, and of her own power. The Kaiser, a true oppressor in every way, ensure that Theo’s ‘torture’ does not end at public abuse and humiliation. He assigns three solders, “Shadows”, to constantly be by her side; this means watching her in every moment of her life. They are there when she wakes, and they are there when she sleeps. She cannot even undress or bathe without them. They are instructed to never speak to her as is Theo’s lady in waiting. She lives in complete isolation, under the watchful, piercing gaze of the Kaiser.
With her first YA novel, Sebastian has ensured that we will remember her name. Ash Princess is, without a doubt, a meditation on colonization and subjugation. Here, readers are not offered a heroine who, despite years of hardship, is full of rage and rebellion. Instead, Theo’s spirit has been completely broken and she lives in a state of fear and abject resignation. Readers will find themselves empathizing and understanding how being subjugated in such a way can strip away every facet of someone’s identity. The novel is beautifully written and evokes the anxiousness and heartbreak our protagonist faces vividly. Sebastian has constructed an intricate, multi layered, female heroine and has given her no other option but to save herself. Though she has been so carefully conditioned by the Kalovaxians to be the quiet unassuming captive, she eventually finds strength enough in herself to fight back. Fear is a tricky thing, and one frequently wielded to gain and maintain the upper hand, especially in Theo’s case. It is an unwieldy emotion causing us to revert back to our most base instincts in many cases. Our own fear can serve as our most imposing mountain to traverse, but also the most necessary to overcome the mountain.
Ash Princess delivers a strong comment on an issue that has been at the center of our society for quite some time now: displacement. Through YA fantasy novels such as Ash Princess, readers are asked to face what is unimaginable for some and what is a horrific truth for others. Theo is displaced from her rightful position as Queen. Astreans who were once safe in their homes seek refuge in other countries, hoping to find peace and safety. Today, there are entire communities seeking refuge on shores that are not their own; hundreds of thousands of people who, because of the turmoil unfolding in their homes, have found themselves seeking safety in a new country. Ash Princess illustrates the importance of providing this safety to those in need. It reminds us that, though the destruction and oppression happening in other parts of the world may seem distant, ours is a global community and we must stand as a whole. Laura Sebastian’s novel also reminds us to fight, whether fueled by rage, like the rebels of Astrea, or fear, like that which drives Theo, when faced with oppression, subjugation, cruelty, and injustice.