This was admittedly a little slow for me to get into but it had quite a bit to do with me starting it while away on a sunny beach at Amelia Island in Florida (it was in stark contrast to the dark world in the novel, so I had competing worlds in my head).
Nevertheless, once I got into 'Ash Princess' further, I became captivated by the darkness, and contrary to some interpretations of it being a story that is there to shock its readers with the relentless abuse, and of murders of whole populations, I read this book and absorbed this in a very different way. I'll get back to all of that in a moment...
The novel is centered around a young girl, the 'Ash Princess', Theodosia, who is now known as Lady Thora, who is being held captive in the palace that her mother, the Fire Queen was murdered. The cruel and murderous Kaiser, has subsequently enslaved the Astrean people, and now the Kalovaxians rule the land, although there's a rebellion brewing.
Theo's position is complicated to say the least. She has suffered a decade of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother's murderer, but she knows that if she is to survive, she needs to bide by the Kaiser's wishes. Theo's closest friendship is also complex, since she is friends with the daughter of the enemy Theyn, the Kaiser's right-hand man; Crescentia is close with Theo, but looks the other way when things are hard for her friend (namely, her beatings), quite happily will give her the less flattering dress to wear, and doesn't see many things that are right under her nose (luckily).
Another complication: where would a good YA novel be without a little bit of confusion over what boy you like? It's even more complicated when one is supposed to be the enemy, the Prinz (and your best friend hopes to marry them some day), and the other is a long time friend, and orchestrating the plot to escape, amongst other things (*no further spoiling!).
Beyond the walls of the palace, there are also battles fought for more land, in the name of the Kaiser, and in terms of how this comes across to me, is that I liken this to how I see much of European history. I'm not talking about the Kaiser specifically but when I think back to what I know of centuries of history across Europe and all the battles fought, particularly for land, the pillaging of villages, the murdering of its people, these sorts of things happened. I liken what I'm reading to that sort of knowledge I have of history of the way that lands are conquered; even royalty has been imprisoned within their own castle walls. History really has been that cruel, so when I read something like this (or like many other fantasy novels), it really has been played out. What's wonderful in a book like this though, is that the people are waiting for this young woman, Theodosia, to take back the throne again.
So, ultimately I felt like this was a tale of survival in a very harsh world, where Theo has to make hard choices to not only survive, but to try and fulfil what she believes is a destiny expected of her by the Astrean people. It leads her to do some things she doesn't want to do sometimes, and through that, she actually becomes stronger as the novel progresses, but at a cost.
This is not a novel for someone who wants their books about fallen kingdoms to be light and with frequent uplifting turns; this book is pretty heavy, and high on dark content, but if you're willing to fall into a novel where kingdoms don't get taken back easily, and in which many lives are lost in the process, you will be ready for this. There are strong characters in this and I hope they're developed even further in the next book. I'm looking forward to seeing the rebellion of the Astrean people continue!
YA fantasy has ANOTHER amazing author, Laura Sebastian, to pay attention to!