Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: THE BURNING SKY by Sherry Thomas

Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she's being told. The one prophesied for years to be the savior of The Realm. It is her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the greatest mage tyrant the world has ever known. A suicide task for anyone let alone a sixteen-year-old girl with no training, facing a prophecy that foretells a fiery clash to the death.

Prince Titus of Elberon has sworn to protect Iolanthe at all costs but he's also a powerful mage committed to obliterating the Bane to revenge the death of his family—even if he must sacrifice both Iolanthe and himself to achieve his goal.

But Titus makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should have been only a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the Bane closing in, he must choose between his mission and her life.
Eek. Talk about a roller coaster ride of expectations. I went into The Burning Sky with high hopes. The author is well-respected, though in a different genre and age category. The synopsis sounded kickin', and the cover was pretty. Hiiiigh hopes! She had hiiiigh hopes! She had high, apple-pie-in-the-skyyyy hopes! And even though the book started with an unnecessary intro, it was at least interesting. Anything that promises a girl in disguise as a boy guarantees my interest, so I suppose it wasn't a hard target to hit.

Then I started the first chapter. Most of the time, the first chapter of a book is a very good indication of how I will enjoy the book as a whole. No, forget that. I can usually tell by the second page or so how well a book and I will jive. The first chunk of The Burning Sky was, to put it bluntly, a mess. In the very beginning, it was little things, like clunky wording in sentences. I shrugged that off, hoping those errors would be fixed in the finished copy.

Worse, though, was the world-building. I couldn't get my footing. There seemed to be a magic system in place involving mages but also... Atlantis? And the heroine lives with a Haymitch-type guardian in a world that is... not at ALL different from our world except that there's magic? And apparently Rumpelstiltskin is a real guy. And suddenly we're not with the heroine but with a prince who has some sort of virtual reality portal and there are prophecies and he has a horse... no, a dragon... no, a flying horse with scales? And people can hop around from place to place by teleporting, except it's called vaulting and it's magic. And everyone is still talking about Atlantis, but apparently it's bad and has nothing to do with water. And then BOOM! We're in England! Because the two worlds are connected?

So lost, you guys. SO LOST. I came within a hair's breadth of DNFing this book, no lie. I couldn't remember what genre Sherry Thomas wrote previously, but I sure as heck knew it wasn't fantasy and it certainly wasn't YA fantasy. She felt very, very new to the genre and wrote with more of an MG feel. It was as if she had read a few articles on popular YA fantasy books and decided to toss a few of the more interesting elements in.

Ingredients for a YA fantasy novel
  • 1 intoxicated, worthless mentor (see: Haymitch from The Hunger Games)
  • 1 plucky, headstrong heroine
  • 1 dashing and handsome prince (also, don't forget to make sure both the prince and the heroine are good at EVERYTHING)
  • 1 magic system that uses Latin spells, wands, and a connection between the magical world and old-fashioned England (see: Harry Potter)
  • 1 dash of various fairy tale beings treated as real people (Rumplestiltskin, Sleeping Beauty)
  • 1 extended incident of cross-dressing 
  • 1 mention of angels (because apparently we're in a paranormal book now)
  • 1 mention in real-world England of Helen of Troy as a contemporary (because sure, let's make the real-world feel unfamiliar, too.)
Not only were all these overdone elements thrown at me pretty much at once, but I didn't feel like Ms. Thomas gave me enough time to connect with either Titus or Iolanthe in the beginning. I was so busy trying to fight my way through the kudzu of the world-building that I didn't have enough energy to stop and figure out the characters. I didn't care about them, so why would I bother to keep fighting my way through the plot? This, I think, is a mistake many newbie fantasy authors make. In books based in our world, it takes less time and detail for a reader to ground herself because the world is already familiar. Even in dystopians, the world is still ours. It may be screwed up, but I'll at least have some idea where I am. But in a fantasy, I'm trying to learn the rules. Start relatively small, keep me in one place long enough that I can figure out where I am, and then go from there. All the bouncing around gives me a headache.

The worst offense, in my opinion, was the magic. I am a firm believer that magic should always come with a price. Users must be taxed in energy, stamina, power, SOMETHING. Magic must cause fatigue or pain. Not so in this book. Magic is used freely. Magic users are gifted with innate skill levels and learn spells the way we might learn chemical experiments. That's all fine and dandy, but I didn't like the way Prince Titus could vault over three hundred miles and didn't even have the decency to act a bit winded!

It's all a big, snarled mess, but I'm here to encourage you that it does get better. Way better. I'll admit, I stuck around for the cross-dressing. Titus whisks Iolanthe away to England and disguises her as Fairfax, a school chum, to keep her hidden from the dreaded Atlantis. I love the inherent awkwardness that comes with a girl disguising herself as a boy, and Iolanthe seemed to morph into someone new the moment she cut off her hair. She had more snap, more swagger. Most of her newfound cockiness is due to being in character as Fairfax, but I liked her better nonetheless.

We also learn more about Titus, the lying, deceiving prince desperate to live up to his mother's prophecy and utterly willing to die in order to defeat the Bane. I liked him much better, too. In fact, my interest really kicked in the first time Titus betrayed Iolanthe. I say first time because he does it regularly in the beginning. Sneaky boy, you amuse me so. To force Iolanthe to work with him, Titus makes her take a blood oath, one that causes agonizing pain should she even think about breaking her end of the bargain. Of course, it works both ways, so the two of them are sent writhing on several occasions.

Ms. Thomas threw in a few more elements that caught my interest for the better. In addition to the blood oath, the cross-dressing, and Titus and Iolanthe's ability to deceive, they also face a pretty wicked villain in the Inquisitor. As villains go, she's sparse in backstory (read: none), but she's pretty gung-ho in her evil deeds. I'll warn you all right now that she is responsible for one animal death, but it's one I'll allow due to the effect it has on Titus. The Crucible (the virtual training ground Titus uses for Iolanthe) was also interesting, as was the nature of the prophecies. Titus's mother was a seer and left him with a book of prophecies that only became visible when he needed them most. They are, for the most part, self-fulfilling prophecies in that they could not reasonably happen without Titus or Iolanthe first being aware of the prophecies themselves. I found this wibbly-wobbly state highly fascinating.

So yes, the beginning could have used a LOT of work, the world-building needs a facelift, and certain elements should have been less derivative. But am I glad I kept reading? Yes. Did I enjoy myself? Yes. Will I pick up the sequel when it comes out? Gladly. Sounds like a success to me.

Points Added For: Cross-dressing, blood oaths, Titus's fatalism, Titus's lies, the Crucible.

Points Subtracted For: That awful beginning, being so scattered, being too derivative in places, a villain with no backstory.

Good For Fans Of: MG fantasy, Harry Potter (and other books where fantasy worlds connect with reality), virtual reality interfaces, hate-to-friendship romances.

Notes For Parents: Animal death, language, kissing.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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