Summary from Goodreads:
It all began with a ruined elixir and a bolt of lightning.
Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation - or so she has been told. The one prophesied for years to be the saviour of the Realm. It's her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the most powerful tyrant and mage the world has ever known. This would be a suicide task for anyone, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl with no training.
Guided by his mother's visions and committed to avenging his family, Prince Titus has sworn to protect Iolanthe even as he prepares her for their battle with the Bane. But he makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should only have been a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the tyrant closing in, Titus must choose between his mission - and her life.
The Burning Sky - the first book in the Elemental trilogy - is an unforgettable novel of intrigue and adventure.
Iolanthe has lived most of her life in a remote village, with a tutor/guardian who seems to be quite content to drink himself into oblivion. She thinks he's delusional and paranoid, but when she gets desperate to perfect an elixir and performs a new spell, she suddenly brings a lot of scrutiny down on herself, including Prince Titus and she realises that her tutor's ramblings may have had some substance. Her guardian pushes her into what appears to be a trunk, but turns out to be a magical portal and she ends up in an attic with a madwoman intent to suffocate her. Luckily the prince shows up before she's killed. He explains that he's been plotting to kill the Bane for years, and his mother predicted that Iolanthe would help him. Of course, he didn't know she'd be a girl, which will seriously complicate his plan to hide her among his school fellows at Eton.
Titus, having access to his mother's predictions, has known about the prophesied elemental mage for years, and has set up magical safeguards so that everyone he goes to school with at Eton believes him to have a best friend, Archer Fairfax. Iolanthe assures him that she can impersonate a boy convincingly and because the Bane's agents are hot on their heels, they have no choice but to cut her hair, dress her in a school uniform and hope for the best. Titus can't imagine how anyone could mistake the pretty girl for a boy, but once they arrive at school, all the boys are cheerfully greeting their old buddy Fairfax, back after a three month convalescence at home, having broken his leg.
The disguise is working, but Iolanthe doesn't have full control of her powers. For her to be able to fully assist Titus, she needs to be able to control all four elements, but her entire life she's been told that she has no powers over air. Titus can tell that there is some sort of magical block in place, but breaking through it proves difficult. All the while, the Bane's agents are watching him closely, looking for signs of the new elemental practitioner they now know exist. It's imperative that they not realise that Fairfax and Iolanthe are one and the same.
Then there's the added complication of the growing affection between Titus and Iolanthe. Initially, Iolanthe doesn't want to risk her life in some momentous scheme to stop the Bane, and Titus sneakily manipulates her into swearing a blood oath to help him. Once she realises she's been tricked, she feels deeply betrayed (with good reason), but as her training progresses, and she learns more about how the Bane and his agents have controlled Titus' entire life and how his mother died in a failed rebellion against them, she begins to see the worthiness of his quest. Titus knows, from his mother's prophecies, that he's likely to die before they succeed in their goal. His mission is to train Iolanthe, so she can triumph, but he's pretty sure he's not going to be there with her at the end. So them falling in love is certainly not the most convenient, even though it assures Titus of her devotion and loyalty.
This is Sherry Thomas' first attempt at Young Adult fiction, before this, she's only written romance. I was unsure of how to rate this book, because it's slow to start, and Titus really is a bit of an alphahole to begin with, while Iolanthe's dangerously close to practically perfect in every way. Having played a boy in some village plays is apparently enough to fool a whole school full of school boys, not to mention the staff. She picks up cricket from watching the other boys play it for a few minutes, and isn't just decent at it, but spectacular. The only thing she spends some time fighting with, is breaking the magical block on her air powers.
Nonetheless, I really like the premise of the story (even though the Bane is a really lame name for a big bad) and the world building, with some of it set in non-magical Victorian England, with the rest in Titus' magical kingdom. Iolanthe clearly has a mysterious background, of which we will most likely discover more in later books. There are all sorts of prophecies, and intriguing worlds within worlds to be explored. As a romance writer, what Thomas does best is the gradual escalation in Iolanthe/Fairfax and Titus' feelings for one another. The second half of the book is a lot more action-packed and exciting than the first, and due to this, I think my rating will stay at 4 stars.
Judging a book by its cover: This is a fairly generic fantasy cover, with a castle, snow-capped mountains in the background, some ominous skies, lightning flashing from above, an insistent sun fighting through the clouds and big ol' winged flame shape dominating the main part of the cover. The castle is probably meant to evoke Prince Titus' palace. Iolanthe is an elemental whose main control is over fire and can call lightning from clear skies, I understand why these elements are there. Not sure about the winged shape (a phoenix? dragon?), but there are certainly a selection of flying fantasy beasties in the book, so I'll let it go. You can't really see in the thumbnail picture, but there is also a cheese tagline over the bottom part of the cover, "She can deny her power. But she cannot deny destiny." Iolanthe never denies her powers, and she's not particularly against Titus' quest to liberate his kingdom. She just doesn't want to be manipulated into helping him. Silly publishers.