Book Review

Ash Princess

Ash Princess

  • Author: Laura Sebastian
  • Genre: YA Fantasy
  • Publication Date: April 24, 2018
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • Series: Ash Princess Trilogy #1

CONTENT WARNING: blood, murder, enslavement, torture, mention of rape, massacres, mention of domestic violence, mention of medical experimentation

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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.

In a super fun twist of fate,  I commented on a TTT post about book series, and wound up beginning this series as a buddy read with Julie @ One Book More. It can be really difficult to find the right partner for a buddy read, and Julie turned out to be a perfect buddy reader for me—we have similar taste, we read at the same speed, had incredible discussions, and as an added perk, we live in the same time zone, so our chats were at convenient times. I know we’re both excited about starting book 2 in this series soon!

This book was a quick read, although I know I was surprised at how brutal it was. It starts out with the conquest of Astrea, and the murder of the Fire Queen, while Princess Theodosia is clinging to her hand. Instead of killing Theodosia as well, they take her as a captive, and subject her to cruel and brutal punishments to turn her into a docile and terrified prisoner. We then see her ten years later, where she’s been renamed Lady Thora, the Ash Princess. She lives her entire life under surveillance at all times, with her every movement and action scrutinized, only her thoughts her own. On top of that, any rebel activity that occurs results in her being publicly whipped, regardless of whether she had anything to do with it. Everything she does is designed to avoid punishment and make her appear subservient to the Kaiser, who she hates with her entire being.

Until she hits a breaking point. The Kaiser drags her in front of him and forces her to participate in the punishment of someone else, and it’s the first time she’s had to do that. For the last decade, she’s been hoping to be saved, and this crushes that final tiny bit of hope, but she doesn’t want to give up. 

“The hope inside me is not smothered yet. It is dying, yes, with only a few embers left. But I’ve seen fires rekindled with less.”

Thora’s only friend is Crescentia, the daughter of the man who killed Thora’s mother. And while Thora has plenty of animosity for the people who have taken over her country, she has a soft spot for Cress. This is a sweet, naïve girl who is the epitome of privilege and entitlement, but doesn’t seem spoiled. Instead, Cress is a girl who hasn’t been touched by the ugliness that surrounds her, and has decided that Thora is as close to her as a sister. Thora benefits from her friendship with Cress, receiving gifts and protection from the abuse she normally receives. 

Before long, there’s a new addition to Thora’s social circle—Prinz Søren, the son of the Kaiser. Despite their similar appearance, the two men couldn’t be more different. Søren doesn’t seem to hold anything against Thora, instead just seeing her as a person and not something to be used to manipulate. And it isn’t long before a romance seems to develop.

But Thora is starting to break free of the shell that she has built up to protect herself. She starts to struggle with her perception of herself, and even just the persona of Thora no longer seems to fit her any longer. She starts to recognize that she is more than what she has shrunk herself down to be to placate the Kaiser, and as she begins to identify herself as Theo, or Theodosia again, she has this realization:

“Something in me is waking up. This is not my home. I am not their prize. I am not content with the life they have so kindly spared. Ampelio can’t save me anymore, but I won’t let his sacrifice be in vain. I have to figure out how to save myself.”

As she slowly awakens to the possibility of creating change in her world, not only for herself but for the people she is responsible for, she starts to see everything through a different lens. She’s still isolated and doesn’t know who to trust, and consequently, it makes it difficult for the reader to identify who is trustworthy. And it’s hard to spark a revolution without being able to trust anyone. Theo has to place her faith somewhere, and manages to accrue a tiny circle of allies that she’s willing to trust, some of whom are completely unexpected. 

One of my favorite things about buddy reading is that it gives me the time and space to really think about the story in depth a bit more than I normally do. This book creates two opposing societies, that are fundamentally different at every level. The Astreans are olive-skinned, dark-eyed and dark haired, while the Kalovaxians are fair-skinned, blond haired and blue eyed, making it easy to identify who belongs to which group. There is mention of other kingdoms that have been conquered, and there’s at least two side characters who belong to a different kingdom, but it isn’t explored much. The Kalovaxians are ruled by a male Kaiser, where women are married off relatively young to politically advantageous matches so they can produce heirs, and love doesn’t factor into the equation. Their society is based on males being warriors so that they can conquer kingdoms, use up their resources, and move on when the land and people have nothing left to offer. On the other hand, the Astreans are led by a queen and romantic relationships are based on love and don’t require marriage, not even for the queen. Magic and religion are a strong foundation of their society, Guardians who are blessed by the gods can be male or female, and they function to protect the land and the people. It reminds me a lot of the dichotomy between colonizing Europeans and some of the Indigenous tribal structures of the Americas (minus the magic of course). 

The magic and the world-building were incredibly intriguing, but I loved reading this story for more than that. It’s hard to remember at times that many of the characters were around 16 or so, since they’re all forced to grow up long before their time. While it was difficult to read about what Theo had to go through, I loved watching her come into her own and stand tall in her own identity rather than force herself to stay small to make someone else happy. 

“‘We are not defined by the things we do in order to survive. We do not apologize for them,’ she says quietly, eyes never leaving mine. ‘Maybe they have broken you, but you are a sharper weapon because of it.’”

I normally dislike stories involving a love triangle, but this one was done really well. Maybe it’s because the MC often reads like two different people for so much of the book, and the duality of Thora/Theo leads to an internal struggle as she decides who she is and who she wants to be now that she has the choice. Their needs and wants are very different, with Thora’s every move laid out for her, and Theo having freedom to make decisions for the first time in her life, but knowing that she will need to pay the consequences for her decisions. 

Overall, this was such a fast read, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s a bit slow at first, which let me get used to the world that it’s set in, and the major players. However, once I was accustomed to the setting and the characters, it swiftly moves into political intrigue, rebellion, dangers, and action, rapidly transitioning into plans for rebellion. There were a couple of loose ends left and some last minute surprises that I wasn’t expecting, even though I did pick up on some of the plot twists in advance, and I’m definitely looking forward to where this series is going next. 

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 9

7 replies »

  1. Ever since I read HALF SICK OF SHADOWS by Laura Sebastian last year I’ve been wanting to read her backlist. Thanks for the reminder! I’m glad to see you really enjoyed reading it, which makes me excited to read it because I enjoyed HSoS so much. I love some political intrigue!

    Liked by 1 person

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