Romanov by Nadine Brandes: A Review

by Katie Moran

“My blood is my crime.
If you look at it, it’s still red. If you touch it, it’s still wet.
But if you listen to it, it speaks a single name in a pulsing chant.
Romanov Romanov Romanov.”

Every so often, we are gifted novels that stroll through time, resurrecting a forgotten moment, place, or person. These novels do the work of bridging the distance between now and then for young readers. Nadine Brandes has written such a book. Her newest novel, Romanov, speaks to her command of history and of storytelling.

Brandes balances the historic, biographic, and fantastical elements at the heart of this story with a dexterity that demonstrates an intimate familiarity with the subject. The reimagined events of the Romanov family’s demise adheres to just enough of the truth and veers just far enough away to capture the reader. The story is not without the brutality of history’s truth, but there is a whisper of hope that transforms this into a gripping tale of possibility. Nadine Brandes has posed the question, what if history was wrong, what if the stories and accounts aren’t the entirety of it? And what a wonderful conundrum to speculate on. Romanov gives us the opportunity to pause and muse about what really happened, about whether or not all that we read in textbooks is entirely truthful. 

The characters of Romanov are complex, well-constructed representations of the best and worst of Russia’s history. Brandes has accounted for so much of the real in her fictional novel that the introduction of the fantastical went almost unnoticed; it felt entirely believable because of the sound craftmanship and subtlety in her work. The tension between the White Army and the Bolshevik Army is gripping from start to finish, the uncertainty of what will happen next guiding the turn of every page. The humanization of this infamous family is so deftly done, readers will find themselves cursing the family’s circumstance and encouraging them to rally through their hardship.

Historical fiction often falls into the trap of restating facts–things we already know–which can lead to a story that falls flat. Romanov certainly does the opposite; this reimagined history, with a fantastical lean, is a rousing success through and through.


Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo: A Review

by Kassandra Flamouri

I’ll be honest. I didn’t love Six of Crows. It started off a bit slow and ended on a note that made me want to rip it apart with my bare hands—but it also made me want to read the sequel, Crooked Kingdom. And I am so, so glad I read the sequel. Crooked Kingdom hits the ground running and doesn’t stop until the (extremely satisfying) end.

Along the way, we fall in even deeper love with the nuanced, fun, believable characters we met in the first book. I love Inej’s unique blend of vulnerability and strength, both physically and emotionally. Her relationship with Kaz is complex and wrenching, but Inej never lets Kaz off the hook. She’ll have all of him or nothing, making her a great model for young women in the way she sets and maintains boundaries for herself while still acting with compassion and friendship.

Nina, too, shines in the sequel. I spent a lot of the first book rolling my eyes and gagging at her relationship with Matthias, but here I really appreciated Matthias’s character arc as his world view grew and shifted. Nina herself grows as well as she grapples with withdrawal and a delightfully unexpected (and totally badass) twist on her Grisha power.

The MVP romance in this book is that of Wylan and Jesper. Sweet but never sugary, anchored in sincere respect and mutual belief in each other, their relationship was infinitely more satisfying than Nina and Mathias’s hormone-and-banter flirt fest. They each have their issues, but they lean on each other and grow together in the most adorable way all through the book.

Kaz is delightfully twisty and conniving as always, fueled by a heady mix of revenge, justice, and greed. His vendetta against Pekka Rollins and Jan Van Eck comes to a glorious head in the climax of the novel, wherein the villains’ greed and general dastardliness come back to bite them in a big, big way. Kaz doesn’t rob them or humiliate them; he lets them do that themselves. He carefully portions out the rope and then gently—and genteelly—guides them like sheep into a noose woven from every angst-soaked thread in the story. I’m so glad there isn’t a third book because the ending of Crooked Kingdom was, in a word, perfect.

Though there isn’t a third book, there is the Shadow and Bone trilogy to binge, which I’m going to do immediately.


Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian: A Review

by Kassandra Flamouri


When we last saw Theo at the end of Ash Princess, she had just escaped the palace with hostage Prinz Soren in tow to take refuge with her aunt, the pirate Dragonsbane. This is where we find her at the opening of Lady Smoke: almost literally adrift, surrounded by strangers whose loyalty most probably lies with their captain rather than their Queen, whom their captain openly patronizes at every opportunity.

What I love most about Theo is her ability to play the docile princess and still carry on with whatever she’s planning. How she handles herself—and her business—is quite believable. She’s a young queen, which means everyone and their father and brother and any other handy male wants to tell her what to do and how to do it. Rather than sugar coat that reality, the author leans into it and really gives Theo a chance to shine.

Theo plays the game as only she can. Raised first as a princess and then as a political prisoner, she’s an astute observer and manipulator. She’s not a warrior, and she doesn’t pretend to be—but she does recognize the need to protect herself, and so she seeks out instruction in knife wielding. Both the author and Theo herself are realistic about her combat skills, which is refreshing. Theo doesn’t magically become an expert, and she doesn’t go charging into battle with her knife at the first opportunity. But when the time does come to use her blade, she does so with focus and intention.

For a sequel, I was pleasantly surprised by the plot. Many second books are a bit scattered and not as exciting as the first, but the plot of Lady Smoke is tight and well-paced with some very satisfying twists and turns. The setting helps as well. Readers get to experience a new country in the same universe, which adds some excitement and keeps the story fresh. With this new setting come new characters, most of whom were well drawn and evocative (even if the emotions evoked range mostly between irritation and outright disgust).

While I wasn’t very invested or interested in Theo’s love triangle (or love triangles in general), I did find her dilemma believable. On the one hand we have Blaise, a childhood friend and fellow patriot. On the other we have Soren, the son of Theo’s captor, an enemy soldier who ordered the slaughter of innocents. The choice seems clear, but there are real complications. Blaise has a tendency to place Theo on a queenly pedestal and doesn’t want to see the darkness in her. He also just hasn’t been around for much of the last ten years. Soren, though Theo insists he doesn’t know the real her, knows a lot more about what she’s going through, a fact that Theo comes to appreciate when she finds herself sending her own men into a battle that could easily become a slaughter.

What I found most satisfying about the book was the fact that Theo’s decisions throughout the story make perfect sense for her character and are, for the most part, well justified by her circumstances. Even her most extreme choices carry a sense of inevitability and, while we might fear for her or mourn for her, we respect both her and her decision. I know I for one will be eagerly waiting for the third installment, due to be released in the spring of 2020.


The Fruit of Our Thorns by Kassandra Flamouri: A Review

by Katie Moran

If Kassandra Flamouri’s debut collection of short stories is anything to go by, then magic really does exist among the mundane. The stories in her recently published collection The Fruit of our Thorns are all deftly crafted to transport believers and non-believers alike into wildly magical worlds running parallel to our own. This collection weaves together Greek, British, and Irish folklore and history, while delivering stories of triumph and heartbreak that sweep in and settle comfortably into the corners of your own imagination. Readers will be left wondering over these multifaceted, bold characters and stories long after they’ve finished reading the collection.

Flamouri’s use of a rose in the title and cover art of the collection alludes to her choice to highlight women throughout this collection. The rose is beautiful, but resilient and so are the women in Flamouri’s collection. Her flawlessly crafted stories speak to the strength of all women from all walks of life. She is able to craft a platform that showcases inclusivity with every turn of the page. The Fruit of Our Thorns, in that it borrows from the fairy tale genre and remixes it masterfully, subtly warns of the dangers of heteronormative fairy tales by demonstrating that traditional tropes are not requisite of the genre.

Split into three parts, each story in Flamouri’s collection reinvigorates the folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy genres and the way that they can be presented to an audience including one our readers know well – “The Spider and the Honeybee” which was first published in Fterota Logia in February 2018. Flamouri’s writing feels familiar, like a story your mother told you before bedtime, while also feeling like it’s been set on fire – full of intensity in one moment, playful and tickling in the next. Flamouri’s stories are written without a notion of conformity or restraint, but rather with an eye toward craftsmanship and remixing.

In the short story The Flowers of Kastania, the author reaches an incredible moment of triumph in her craft. The story is centered on a Greek village during Nazi occupation and based on both the author’s grandmother’s experiences during World War 2 and the massacre of Distomo, a town near Delphi. On June 10, 1944, over two hundred men, women, and children lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis in what has been identified as one of the most despicable crimes of WW2. In her story, Flamouri gracefully and with care for the memory of those who suffered, depicts this story while maintaining her command over the tone she establishes throughout this collection. Flamouri weaves fantastical elements into this retelling of a dark spot in human history to create a heart wrenching, poignant, and beautifully told story of compassion, hope, and, above all, the strength of women and girls.

The Fruit of Our Thorns is an introduction to a talented and imaginative storyteller, one whose voice needs to be heard by many. Flamouri’s collection is bold, imaginative, and beautifully written while also addressing issues of gender and sexuality, the values of family and community, the toxic consequences of patriarchy, and so much more. She is an absolutely necessary voice in our current world. Flamouri has flawlessly crafted stories that will grip readers as they embark on their journey through the collection, gathering fans just as her words gather momentum. She is an author who creates a transformative experience for her readers through her skillful writing and I, for one, cannot wait to see what else she creates.


Furyborn by Claire Legrand: A Review

by Katie Moran

The first installment of Claire Legrand’s Emporium series, Furyborn, deals with a feud and prophecy. The dual point of view spans millennia, alternating between two powerful narrators, Rielle and Eliana, each of whom is fighting her own battle. The overall plot deals with the fine line between what is accepted and what is right. Legrand’s characters frequently must choose between sacrifice and conscience or the greater good and the easy path. These types of dynamics make each of their struggles, losses, and triumphs feel genuinely authentic to the reader.

Legrand’s artful storytelling allows each character to fully inhabit the world that they’re narrating to us. Time is the greatest barrier between the two strong story lines, and the use of time as a deviation for our main characters gives the necessary depth and clout to the overall progression of the novel. Legrand’s ability to craft a tale is portrayed in the way the author seamlessly layers Rielle and Eliana’s narratives, ensuring that each keeps pace with the other and allowing the necessary information from one to permeate and aid in our understanding of the other.

Although both of our protagonists, Eliana, the dread of Orline, and Rielle, the Sun Queen,  have faults enough to match their endurance and heart, each woman has a strong sense of remorse. The underlying tone of accountability that results o really humanizes  these larger than life characters. There are brief moments throughout when the voices of the two begin to sound minutely similar, but it would seem this was a conscious decision of Legrand’s given the relationship of the two despite the eons that stand between them.

Overall, Furyborn deals with the common yet never ending cosmic struggle between what is right and what is wrong. Legrand has done a wonderful job in creating characters able to carry the burden of such a common struggle while remaining intriguing and readable. Though there are fleeting mentions of some bisexual representation in the novel, there is little follow through on the matter. However, Furyborn is only the first installment, and there is still hope for more inclusive and well-rounded moments in the trilogy.




The Wicked King by Holly Black: A Review

by Katie Moran

“Power is so much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to.”

The sequel to Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince (which I reviewed here) was very much worth the wait! In this installment, the stakes are even higher for our protagonist Jude as she navigates through a veritable minefield in order to survive. Black’s persuasive style of writing seamlessly folds us once again into the power struggle between Jude Duarte and her enemies. Black has proven anew her innate ability to display the strife between family, and even more her flawless execution of a modern fairy tale.

Twin sisters Jude and Taryn couldn’t be more at odds. With sister Vivienne gone and Jude situated behind a throne of lies, it seems that struggles are compounded in battle after battle. Unfortunately, many of these moments are instigated by Taryn’s involvement in one form or another. When we last left the Duarte sisters, it was with a deep ache for Jude’s new-found position and Taryn’s callous dismissal of her sister. Even more so now, our empathy for Jude intensifies as she has not only Taryn to contend with but also a newer enemy, Madoc. Black weaves her magic through the ties that bind this strange family, allowing us an eye into what the cost of those betrayals and lies have become, and how they’ve re-shaped the family into something sharper and wearier than anything it could have been before.

With enemies on all fronts, Jude must delve into a well of strength to overcome her many adversaries. The Wicked King is a poignant addition to the list of recent female heroines inducted into the young adult literature genre. Jude is incredibly provocative, outspoken, and driven. She is calculating and hesitant to pursue rash action. Black has written a wonderfully relatable, reflective and admirable character whose flaws make her an incredibly versatile and accessible female protagonist. Jude embodies a young woman whose conflicts have strengthened and spurred her forward. Her unwavering soundness and persistence are a nod towards what it means to be disciplined and dedicated in pursuit of a goal

Black has turned the patriarchy on its head with this one. It wouldn’t be possible to write this review without mentioning Cardan at least once. No matter your feelings pertaining to the intricately complicated male protagonist, one thing is for certain: Black did the opposite in every way of what readers expected when it came to the dynamics between Jude and Cardan. Now situated on what should have been his brother’s throne, Cardan is but a figurehead, a beautiful face to appease the masses. It is Jude who now holds the power. Black seems to quietly meditate on what power truly stands for and on the divergence between those who hold a powerful title opposed to those whose power comes in not having one.

The Folk of the Air Trilogy has given us a stellar second installment in  The Wicked King. Holly Black has waved her pencil, and we the readers have surrendered to her spell. Anticipation will no doubt continue to mount as we await the release of the third and final title, The Queen of Nothing, in 2020. For now, if you haven’t already, go and immerse yourself in the imagination of Holly Black in the form of these first two installments.


Nothing Happened by Molly Booth: A Review

by Katie Moran

(ARC provided by Disney-Hyperion)

Readers should expect to encounter periods of reflection and nostalgia about the wonderfully fleeting moments of adolescence and of summer, as they read Molly Booth’s wonderful second novel Nothing Happened. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, we are transported back to summer camp. Camp Dogberry is full of the drama you’d find in Shakespeare’s original production as Booth has done an impressive job of preserving all of the components of the original story and its characters. As the novel unfolds, we are bewitched by the Leonato sisters, Bee and Hana, who are both dealing with figuring out who they love, and how to navigate their lives as sisters and as individuals.

Young adult literature has begun to really embrace and explore queer identities and themes. Most often in YA literature, we find delineations and character struggles between the hetero/queer identities. The majority of novels address ‘coming out’ and the obstacles that queer characters face. Nothing Happened goes so much further than this binary. Booth has constructed a cast of characters who serve as incredibly true and believable representations of the real inner struggle that takes place in those trying to learn who they are, where they feel comfortable existing, and how to accept themselves.

We are introduced to Hana early on whose endeavor to figure out whether she identifies more as pansexual or bisexual is brought to light over the course of the novel. The inclusion of such a character should be applauded and celebrated. There is no ‘coming out’ story here, at least not one that works in the way that we have come to recognize in literature. It is imperative that an enlightening can be reached, a threshold breached, broadening and aiding in the understanding that sexuality exceeds the verbal categorizations we’ve created, that it is truly so much more than the labels we give it. Alongside Hana, we are introduced to her love interest, Claudia, who is unapologetically queer. However, there is no fanfare or moment of ‘acceptance’. Claudia, and Hana as the novel progresses, are queer and that’s that. They both face an inner turmoil, but it comes more from accepting their love for each other, as individuals, than it comes from accepting their love for each other, as women.

Bee, Hana’s sister and a key player in the novel, tackles a few other big themes through her construction. Bee is adopted, originally born in Ethiopia though we are given no real background only that it was “a love at first sight kind of deal” for her sister and adoptive parents. The integration of adoption, as a social construction and also a matter of fact part of the Leonato family, is flawlessly done and fluidly adds another level to the diversity and uniqueness of the characters. Knowing Bee is from Ethiopia doesn’t overwhelm the story by any means but adds an integral piece of knowledge and supports the inclusiveness Booth has created in her novel.

Booth doesn’t stop there. She also tackles toxic masculinity, in the form of John whose unrequited love for Hana drives his storyline. He allows his rage and the ‘unfairness’ of her disinterest in him to lead his decisions. This ultimately results in John reflecting on his choices and on his understanding of the world around him. Hana also struggles with her mental health throughout the novel. Again, Booth manages to incorporate a ‘hot topic’ that many authors are addressing in a seamless and realistic way. There is, of course, a need for diversity and inclusion in literature, as well as a need to directly confront certain issues – queer identities, mental health, etc – however, Booth’s decision to just accept these aspects of her characters as ‘normal’ feels so very real to readers. It reminds us that none of these things necessarily make you different, they just make you human.

The novel tackles a first-person narration for a large number of characters. This type of writing is incredibly difficult and requires a specific skill to maintain an authority over each character. The novels form and writing should be commended as there were minimal moments, if any at all, where the story became jumbled or misunderstood. Booth’s technique is razor sharp and impeccably delivered even with the growing number of points of view that she juggles. Each character had their own distinguished voice that made the chapter and character shifts ultimately seamless.

The story plays out over 325 pages of adolescent drama and intrigue. The idyllic, goofy, and all-encompassing adventures and misadventures of summer camp are alive in these pages and Booth has presented us, the readers, with an open invitation into Camp Dogberry so that we may struggle, laugh, cheer and grow with the many characters of Nothing Happened.


Legendary by Stephanie Garber: A Review

by Katie Moran

(ARC provided by NetGalley)

“As fantastical as Caraval might feel.

The next five nights are very real.”

Caraval has ended, the game is over and the revelry has begun… but player beware, it is all to be short lived. Isla de los Suenos, “The Island of Dreams”, the once mystifying island, with its charmed competitions and changing landscape, is now dormant of magic. Those who were once actors in the game have shed their personas. As we discovered at the end of Stephanie Garber’s dizzyingly magical novel Caraval, Donatella Dragna is alive. Tella and her sister Scarlett, our protagonist in Caraval, have a brief moment of reprieve before the illusions and games of Caraval begin again. This time, things are far more sinister than either could have imagined, and the stakes of the game are more real than ever before. Caraval has always brimmed with mischief, magic, and mayhem. Caraval is a tournament of trickery and deceit, while also offering amnesty to those seeking an adventure of their own, or an escape from their lives. At least, that’s what it once stood for.

“Legend has chosen you to play a game that may change your destiny.”

Now, the game has taken a strange and deadly turn. Donatella has found herself swooped up in her very own game of suspense, riddles, and mysticism. The mysterious Legend, creator of Caraval, has some wicked vendettas to settle and if Tella isn’t careful, his feuds may just consume her.

In Caraval, Stephanie Garber twisted a tale for Scarlett, the eldest Dragna sister, made up of immense adventure, magic, and love. Garber’s first novel is the journey of two girls escaping the terrible grip of their deranged father. Garber’s writing depicted the incredible bond of a sisterhood built on the foundations of trust and love. Legendary, Garber’s much awaited sequel, focuses on Donatella, the younger Dragna sister. Tella’s story is a story of loyalty, affection and hope between mother and daughter. Tella’s journey is a cataclysmic chain of events that lead her through trial after trial in the pursuit of finding Paloma, her long missing mother. Tella often speaks of choices. These choices, though incredibly trying and often resulting in placing herself in otherworldly danger, are relished by Tella because they are something all her own. She is the decider of her own destiny and this is something that has always been lacking in her life. She herself embodies the very mischievous essence of Caraval;

“She loved the feeling of doing something bold enough to make her future hold its breath while she closed her eyes and reveled in the sensation that she’d made a choice with the power to alter the course of her life. It was the closest she ever came to holding real power.”

Like Tella, there are countless readers who feel their choices are hindered by circumstance, or perhaps that they have no choices at all. Tella represents an evolution of what happens when we begin to realize that our every choice acts as a catalyst. These choices, whether they are large or miniscule, alter the layout of our path. It is through our choices that we create real opportunity, triumph, and change.

Tella’s realization of the power she possesses when taking authority of her own actions, leads her to understand that, no matter what type of deceit or misfortune is battling to control her, the loyalty and affection that she holds for her mother is steadfast and true. It will not be affected by the adversity she faces. Tella has to make hard decisions, taking stock of what she is and isn’t willing to lose to rescue the one person in the world whose love she craves. Tella is not without flaws, and she often questions herself and her motives, but her inquiry also provides moments of reflection, spaces where she realizes that fate is nothing more than the cumulation of our decisions.

In Garber’s Legendary, we encounter a world that reads like a criticism of our modern consumerism.  Valenda, the capital of the Empire and the place where Legend will host his second set of games for the year, is a place built upon economic consumption and rather blatant greed. In Valenda, religion is used to justify extortion and the need to increase profit margins. It is through the pairing of economy and religion that the world of Valenda makes its profit, praying on those who wish for protection from a higher power while ultimately taking advantage of that need. The relation between the two, as constructed by Garber, is an undertone throughout the entire novel. These moments are subconsciously understood by the reader as it feels familiar to our world.

The coupling of greed and religion permeates the story in other ways as well. In particular, this can be seen in the presence of the Fates. Fates. These otherworldly entities, similar to the Fates from Greek mythology, set the pace of the story. The Fates are intertwined with playing cards, and each possess their own sinister and formidable powers. Tella’s almost instant connection with the beings gives us insight into their dynamic and hierarchy. Each are said to be vile, preying on humans as their source of entertainment. The Prince of Heart takes a particular liking to Tella. He spends much of the novel manipulating and goading her toward dangerous decisions. Like all other tribulations Tella will face during the game, the Fates are only a representation of the mountains she is ultimately capable of traversing. Though often certain she is underestimated by the people around her, Tella learns that she is the only one with the power to make such assumptions true.

Stephanie Garber’s lyrical writing, incredible imagination, and wonderfully layered characters combine to create a lavish, lustrous story sprinkled with enough humor and romance that it will satiate many reading preferences. The second installment in the Caraval trilogy is absolutely enchanting, written with such care that readers will find leaving Caraval even more heart wrenching than before. We here are looking forward to the third installment in this sensational trilogy.


Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody: A Review

by Katie Moran

“Avarice, pride and lust — these are all modest desires. What the City of Sin truly craves is destruction.” – The City of Sin: Where To Go and Where Not To

(ARC of Ash Princess provided by Storybook Cove in Hanover, MA)

Amanda Foody’s incredible world thrums with restless energy and calls to mind the grittiness of the late 19th century, combined with modern technology, and magic. New Reynes is a city alive and thriving with violence and secrecy. Twenty-five years before the beginning of the novel, a revolution rocked the city of New Reynes and saw the fall of the ruling monarchical family, the Mizers. Now, as we’re introduced to it, New Reynes is known as the City of Sin. The destitute North side has collected the nitty gritty of once polite society, rival gangs fight for control at all costs, and those occupying the South side turn a blind eye to the chaos that lives just across the way. Here is a place where magic is as real as the cards that you hold, and if you’re not careful, it could force your hand.

Enne, the novel’s protagonist, is right on the cusp of adulthood. She has spent much of her life at a boarding school amongst the elite children of her world. Enne is a talented dancer but, despite this, she has always felt like less, a few steps behind, lacking in some ways. She is hardly ever noticed by her peers or instructors. The only one that’s ever really looking out for her is Lourdes, her guardian and stand-in mom – and now, Lourdes is missing. “If I’m not home in two months, I’m dead”—it’s been much longer than two months. Enne finds herself in the City of Sin, an unfamiliar, dangerous place, in search of Lourdes. She meets Levi Glaisyser, a notorious card shark and the Lord of the Iron gang, and he soon becomes her only beacon of hope in this volatile city. Enne soon realizes though, that she is much more capable than she’s given herself credit for.

The city of New Reynes is sought out by citizens looking for an escape from their reality. But this isn’t a friendly city and, as Enne soon learns, many get trapped by its seductions and its seediness. Greed serves as an incredibly potent antagonist for the story. It functions as the catalyst which guides our understanding of New Reynes. Greed can turn into a treacherous attribute for any who succumb to it. As we learn in Ace of Shades, when those in power are plagued by greed, it can turn into a deadly game of gains at the expense of others. Young adult literature is experiencing a wave of capable, strong, complex heroines and Enne is a great representation of this trend. She is an empowering reminder of the strength needed to overcome societal expectations – something which is still very much a reality for many young women. Enne’s ability to break free of the restraints placed on her, by her upbringing and by society, is a powerful reminder that we – no matter who we are – have the potential to rise above our circumstances.


Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian: A Review

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.