NovelTEA: Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian + Chocolate Mug Brownie
I took a gamble this week. While YA fantasy has some of the most creative output of YA as a whole, a lot of it can feel repetitive— like authors are ticking checkboxes to appeal to the masses, which makes tons of YA fantasy feel like it’s the same story with vaguely different settings, names, and overall plots.
I figured maybe I was burned out on YA fantasy, to tell you the truth. So when I purchased debut author Laura Sebastian’s novel, Ash Princess, I was taking a gamble. It sounded like your standard YA fare, to be honest.
The basic summary can be boiled down to this: Chosen One/Princess has been taken captive, the last of her family line. She’s been held against her will for ten years, long enough for a touch of stockholm to set in. In order to incite a rebellion and help save what’s left of her impoverished, downtrodden people, she seduces the prince in order to kill him and take revenge on her enemies. Sound familiar? I mean, a little.
Ash Princess had the potential to be another run-of-the-mill, connect-the-dots YA fantasy. I chose to read it because I love checking out debut authors. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. But holy crow, it blew my mind. I can’t even believe that this is Sebastian’s first novel— she writes with the grace and skill of an author who’s been around the block and won a bunch of awards already. I was utterly engrossed by everything in her novel— her characters, setting, pacing, plot and magic system were basically freaking flawless. I don’t think I can express just how delighted I was by Ash Princess.
Okay, so let’s just take a deep breath and talk about it like civilized human beings, because you guys, after reading this book I went out and bought the hardcover at full price, that’s how much I love it.
So what you need to know is that, in Sebastian’s world, the Kalovaxians are a nation of people who conquer and lay waste to neighbouring countries, enslaving its people and guzzling its resources to excess, stripping their current hostage country and its people of all individuality and hope. When there’s nothing left for them to take, they move onto the next place. For the last ten years, they’ve been settled in Astrea, a country rich with magic-infused gems and replete with natural resources. All they had to do to settle there was murder the Astrean queen, her armies, and her supporters.
Her only daughter, six-year-old Princess Theodosia, is taken as the biggest Kalovaxian prize of all: a physical embodiment of the new regime, of hopelessness. She is stripped of her name— Princess Theodosia becomes docile Lady Thora, who has no past and no future, existing only to remind the Kalovaxians they’re on top, and the Astreans are at the bottom. She is beaten every time an Astrean so much as looks at a Kalovaxian the wrong way, and forced to wear a crown made of ash whenever she attends Kalovaxian functions— attending is not an option, it’s a rule.
Sebastian’s characters are a step-up from what I’m used to. The trend in fiction— bleeding over into television, web series, etc.— seems to equate being a “badass” female with being borderline caustic, their verbal, mental, and physical guns blazing 24/7 with no room for vulnerability or kindness or anything other than “I’m A Badass, Bow Down” posturing. I mean, that’s not how people work. I know plenty of strong women who go through hell— and keep going— while embracing the full smorgasboard of human emotions because they actually are human.
In Queen Theodosia, Sebastian’s main character, I saw far more than one-dimensional posturing. I saw a battered 17-year-old who, after years of abuse and humiliation, eagerly owns her faults, but just as thirstily accepts her strengths. She’s desperate to save her people and turn the tides against her captors, but despite all the horrific things she’s been through, she’s not heartless. She vacillates between wanting to slaughter each and every one of the Kalovaxians, and being unable to because not all of them are evil, and not all of them are ignorant to her suffering and the evils of their reigning king (the Kaiser).
Theo wobbles back and forth for a good portion of the book, and she knows she shouldn’t. She knows she should be cold and unfeeling and brutal— but she wants to find a better way that doesn’t turn her into the Kaiser who destroyed her, and her people.
I also really, really loved the magic system. The mystical gems in Sebastian’s world are infused with the elemental magic of the gods— there’s Earth gems, Air Gems, Fire Gems, and Water Gems. They’re sacred, and only certain people are permitted to use them. Those who try without getting the gods’ blessing… well, it doesn’t end well for them. The Kalovaxians don’t believe in their power as anything more than further proof of Astrea’s conquest, and so those sacred gems are reduced to being nothing more than ornamental fodder for rich Kalovaxians. When called to action by the right people, the gems are freaking insane. The entire magic system is clever, fresh, and fun.
If you like books that feature an actual strong female protagonist that’s just finding her footing (taking some painful steps along the way), books that will cheerfully leap into Existential Crisis Mode (bravely, debating the merits of faith, the struggle of it) less than halfway through, books that will keep you up at night because you need to know how it ends— Laura Sebastian’s Ash Princess should be the next thing you read.
Since Ash Princess was the surprise I didn’t know I needed, I decided to pair it with a recipe for a chocolate mug brownie. I was really wary about those, too, but as it turns out: they’re easy, they’re fun, and they’re yummy!
Jess is a freelance journalist with training in the mystic arts of print, television, radio, and a dash of PR. She can typically be found wreaking havoc in her wheelchair, gushing over Disney, reading a book from her never-ending TBR pile, or writing like her life depends on it.