This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher - and thank them for an ebook copy which was nicely formatted! Far too often the ebook is a second thought after the print version, and the formatting suffers, but that was not the case here.
That's where the joy ended though, because then I had to read it. You know you're in trouble with a novel when you're only ten percent in and you're asking yourself how much more you really have to read before you can DNF it and say you gave it a fair chance!
The novel started with a prologue, a thing which I never read. They're antiquated and contribute literally nothing to a story except to kill a few more trees in the print version. Maybe authors who write prologues and epilogues hate trees? The thing is that this whole business of Elanna being kidnapped and held hostage made zero sense, except in that it did herald a lot of other plot points which made no sense either! Maybe I should have read the prologue and then DNF'd it at that point?
The thing is that if I'd known going into this, that it was to be a first person YA trilogy full of cliché and trope, I would never have asked to read it, but Net Galley offered not a whisper. Such books ought to be required to carry a warning sticker. From the blurb, it had sounded like it would be an engrossing and entertaining read. Sic Transit Gloria Blurbi!
I'm very rarely a fan of first person, and unfortunately that voice is chronically over-used in YA stories. I cannot for the life of me understand why so many writers herd themselves like sheep into such a constricting voice, and one which simultaneously makes their character look so dysfunctionally self-important that it is, unless handled well, thoroughly nauseating to read.
Nor are YA trilogies any more welcome in my reading list. They're typically unimaginative, rambling, trope-filled, derivative, and bloated by their very nature. I long for a YA writer who is willing to step outside the trope and think outside the box, but they are a very rare and much-treasured commodity these days, as everyone else rushes-in like lambs to the dip, where more angelic bovines are far too wise to tread. It's all in pursuit of the almighty dollar, and it's sad; truly sad.
This novel initially had intrigued me because of the Earth magic. It's what attracted me most of all, but we were largely denied any exploration of that in the portion I read, and what we did get was accidental or incidental. This was one of the problems. Elanna has this magic, and has known of it since childhood, but she has suppressed it.
To be fair, there are reasons for this, but the fact that she's scared of it and never explores it (except for one too-brief incident we're shown right at the beginning of the novel) made me dislike her. What kind of a dullard do you have to be to have such delightful and powerful magic, and not want to at least tinker with it in private, and learn something about it? The fact that Elanna didn't, not only made her inauthentic, it also made her thoroughly boring and cowardly. There's a huge difference between teasing your readers, and denying them a story that feels real.
Elanna Valtai (often called Lady Elanna for reasons which are not clear - and which felt employed only to give her a cachet she has not earned) was taken hostage at gunpoint (pistol-point more accurately) at the tender age of five, by a conquering king who, over the last fourteen years, she has grown to love as a father. This made little sense, but Elanna is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. She was more like a spork with blunted tines, and consequently neither one thing nor the other. She's fascinated by botany and so, when the king is poisoned, she becomes the prime suspect with improbable rapidity, and is forced to flee.
To me, this made zero sense. The one-dimensionally hateful and cardboard princess, who is now queen, has no reason whatsoever to fear Elanna. She considers her too low to even take seriously, so why bother framing her? We're offered no honest motivation for this at all. At this point the story was no different from the trope high-school story of the girl who is bullied.
Elanna is paradoxically presented as a charming and easy-going woman who everyone likes on the one hand, and on the other, a crudely rustic figure of fun who has no place in court and who is disliked by everyone, having no friends at all! Again, it made no sense that she would have literally no one. It felt like the author was following a rigid plot without actually giving any thought to how realistic or practical this world was that she was creating. If the king is so great, then why doesn't he put a stop to the bullying? The fact that Elanna never once questions this is yet another example of how stupid she truly is.
As I mentioned, despite being repeatedly given the appellation 'Lady', Elanna is never shown to be one. I have no problem with a character being portrayed as having emotions and sensitivity. I think we need more male characters like that in fact, but as usual in YA, the author overdoes this with their main character, so instead of showing her to be a reasonably empathetic young woman raised to be nobility, not a princess, but at least with some spine, she comes across as a weak, limp, and as a weepy, clueless little girl. It was pathetic to read about her.
Once she realizes she's going to be blamed for the king's death, and instead of taking control of her destiny and facing down the charges, which would have actually made for a much more engaging story, Elanna betrays her entire upbringing, and runs away like a scared little girl. Worse than this, she's manhandled by her love interest (and yes, it was ham-fistedly and loudly telegraphed as soon as he appeared in the story), so immediately, all control over her life is removed, and she becomes the toy and plaything of a complete oaf of a man named, inevitably "Lord", as in 'Lord and Master' no doubt as we see her weakly complying with his every demand.
Not only that, she takes the usual abusive and utterly sick YA route of falling for this patronizing and condescending dick like she's an air-headed thirteen-year-old. This is entirely the wrong message to send to young girls, and the fact that so many female YA authors do this so consistently is as scary as it is dangerous. People who talk about a rape culture seem ignorant of this facet of it, in which women are taught, in story after story, that's it's not only okay for a guy to take control over your life, but that you should go along with it mindlessly, and even fall in love with him no matter how he treats you; then we look askance at those women who end-up in abusive relationships.
The saddest thing about this is that all the hots she has for this man take place when she is quite literally fleeing for her life. What kind of a pathetic, misguided specimen do you have to be, to be having hot flashes for a guy when your very life in in peril? It made zero sense and cheapened the whole thing. It was so badly done that it ruined all hope of an intelligent or realistic romantic relationship.
For me, it did nothing but keep reminding me that I was reading a poorly written YA novel into which romance had been jammed for no other reason than that the author and/or publisher determined it was a requirement rather than that it might naturally and organically grow out of a realistic relationship. It suggests that the author either doesn't trust her characters, or she doesn't trust her writing skills, and it sends the wrong message yet again: that all women are Disney princesses who are useless without a man to be a father figure as well as (sickly!) a lover. It says that no young woman can stand on her own two feet - she always needs a studly guy to validate her and shore her up. I call horseshit on that one.
I've read this story so many times that it turns my stomach. The author might change character names, and set them in a new locale, and even give then magic, but it's the same story. They're exactly the same characters going through exactly the same empty motions over and over again. Can YA authors not come up with something new for once? Really? It's pathetic how unimaginative and uninventive YA authors are. Here's a choice quote: "Don’t they realize I’m a scholar as well as a lady of fashion?" What?! Where the hell did that come from?
There are a few, a precious few, a band of sisters, out there who honestly do get it, and who write great stories. They get that this isn't the Victorian era, and that weepy, lovelorn princesses are not only obnoxious, but they are antiquated and inappropriate. They do these stories right: making them fresh and original, but the rest of those authors are doing nothing short of writing cookie-cutter "Harlequin" romances for teens, chasing the easy buck, and that's all there is to it. This is one such story, it saddens me to report. And it could have been so much better.
So, while fleeing on horseback with a group of riders, the wind whistling through her hair, Elanna conducts a whispered conversation with her BFF, who is pretentiously named Victoire. It's described as a "whisper-shout", yet everyone seems able to hear it over the wind and the pounding horse's hooves! At one point they're told, like naughty children talking in the classroom: "That is enough, all of you! No more talk. Do you want to put us all in danger?" Seriously? They're racing through the dead of night on horses with hooves slamming into the ground, and this idiot is worried someone might overhear them talking? Who, exactly, is listening? This is another example of the story not being thought through.
The sad truth is that a lot of the writing leaves a heck of a lot to be desired. We get that Elanna is afflicted deeply with the wilts and the vapors over J-Han, We don't need to be gobsmacked every few paragraphs with yet another account of how she's is hanging on his every breath and touch, and the heat of his body. It's painfully obvious who the murderer is, so there's no mystery there. We know Elanna is going to win in the end and get jiggy with J-Han, so what's the point of reading this again?
Instadore how do I hate thee? Let me count the brays! Well, for one, she has to share a horse with him, yet there's not a word of his sweating or stinking of horses. Seriously? Just how pathetic do you want her to appear to us? Elanna doesn't notice any of his smells, which were rife in that era, even in a fantasy land, but she does notice mundane things like the color scheme in the house she visits - things which seem very odd to have been taken note of by a scared woman who has never paid attention to furniture before, and who is fleeing pursuers who want to put her through a sham trial and then kill her. At the same time, for a botanist, she notices almost nothing of nature! Again, it's not thought through.
Another oddity is that Elanna seems to have perfect, if selective, recall! Despite being gone since she was a very young child, she had no problem understanding her native language, which she last heard - and spoke - when she was merely five years old. We read, "Hugh has switched into speaking Caerisian, which the Count of Ganz evidently understands, and my ears are too tired to deny they know the words, as well." Now I won't try to argue that she would have forgotten her native tongue completely, but at the very least, she would have been extremely rusty in it, and not know many of the words spoken by adults, since she never learned those as a child, yet she appears to have a completely unencumbered grasp of it.
Again, this is not thought through. It's especially bad when it's compared with the time when Elanna goes back to her childhood home. She recalls nothing of that at all! So we're expected to believe that she has a perfect (and adult!) grasp of a language she has neither spoken nor heard in well over a decade since she was barely beyond being a toddler, yet she recalls literally nothing of her childhood home? It's simply not credible.
Her respite at the house is short, because they are quickly - and unaccountably - discovered by the palace guard. How the guards knew exactly where they were goes unexplained, but even that isn't as inexplicable as why Elanna, who was desperate to escape her initial captors with her friend, fails to take Victoire with her! She decides to find the "lay of the land" by herself, first. It's just a house! What's to know? They need to get out, get a couple of horses, and leave.
It's really that simple, yet this limp dishrag of a friend leaves Victoire behind, so that when the palace guard arrives, Victoire is abandoned upstairs. Elanna whines about getting her out, but instead of growing a pair and insisting on rescuing her best friend, which would have made for some great drama, and would have given Elanna some street cred, she's portrayed as spinelessly complying with Lord Almighty J-Han's dick-tates. Once again what we're shown is that she's his property now, not her own. Once again this is entirely the wrong message to send. I truly detested Elanna by this point in the story.
While fleeing for her life, Elanna observes, "I won't be made to use my magic - the magic that puts me in mortal danger" Excuse me? She's already in mortal danger! She's already been declared a witch and a murderer, and had that broadcast across the land. How could she be in any more danger? This is exactly what I mean about Elanna being a profoundly stupid woman, and the last thing I need to read is one more YA novel extolling the 'virtues' of stupidity, in a female main character.
The sad thing is that it never stops in this novel! At one point Elanna reveals that "I know how terrifying it is to walk into a room full of strangers." This is a woman who was raised in a position of nobility, taught to expect deference from everyone. Never before have we been given any indication that she suffers terrors at walking into a room, and now suddenly she knows? Again it makes no sense.
The root problem here is that this novel offers nothing new, which begs the question as to why it was even written! The romance is cliché, the bullying is cliché, the main character is a walking, YA female lead, cliché. At one point very early in the novel, shortly after the studly J-Han arrives to take Elanna into his possession, I read this: "He swings me around, making the world spin, and then we go inside together, my cold hand tucked into his big warm one" so immediately the process of infantilization has begun right there, and this main character is now no more than a weak child in the hands of a trope, strong, manly man. This is one of the biggest problems with YA - the girl becomes a toy for the boy, a plaything, a piece of property, to do with as he wishes, and the girl goes right along with it. Elanna is one of the most stupid, vacuous, compliantly empty characters I've ever encountered. The more I read about her the less I wanted to read about her.
So when did I quite reading exactly? It was right on the cusp of thirty percent in, when I read of a character's eyes that they were "flecked with gold." I cannot even number the times I've read this exact phrase in a YA novel. What the obsession is with gold-flecks in a character's eyes completely escape me, but it's been done ten trillion times if it's been done once, and if I'd read this any earlier, I probably would have quit right then. Admittedly, the phrase is usually employed to describe the male love interest of the female MC, and in this case it wasn't, but does that make it okay to copy? No! That description needs to be summarily banned from YA literature.
It should be needless to say at this point, but I will clarify it anyway: I cannot recommend this story, because it's really just a clone of far too many others that I have also been unable to recommend for the same reasons. I don't care if she gets better as the trilogy goes along. I really don't, because for me she's already a failure, and if it takes her three books to grow a pair, then that's two books too long. The problem with trilogies is that the first book typically only ever is a prologue, and I don't read prologues. Novels like this one have been steadily nudging me to the point where I'm ready to forsake reading YA stories altogether, which would be sad, because once in a while there's a real gem to be found among the base rock.