A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Readers who know their history can compare the actions of the Kalovaxians to the Spanish Conquistadors in South America from the 16th century on, especially the Spanish in Bolivia who forced the native population into the mines. Instead of gold and silver, the mines in Astrea harness the power of the elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Focus on the nature of these classical elements goes all the way back to Ancient Babylon and the Chinese Wu Xing system.
Ash Princess offers a keen examination of ruling by fear and absolute power and weighs he value of one life vs. many, and whether a son should pay for the sins of the father. There's a strong message about the power of hope over fear.
Positive Role Models
Theodosia (Theo) takes a huge leap from being a frightened victim to reclaiming her true name and her place as a leader of her people. She must betray those she cares for to reach that place, so it comes at heavy price.
Violence & Scariness
A 16-year-old political prisoner endures 10 years of torture, including repeated whippings until she is near death (one whipping described vividly), is forced to kill her own father with a sword (also described in gory detail), experiences disturbing psychological warfare and the threat of sexual violence. Many mentions of how she watched her mother's throat get slit when she was 6. Talk of genocide: Most Astreans are killed, their heads displayed on pikes, or enslaved in mines that make them go mad, and then experimented on and blown up. A woman is pushed off a balcony to her death, and displayed at her funeral as she was found. A 13-year-old is forced to drink poison that burns her from the inside out in another vivid scene that describes "broiling flesh." Talk of two more poisonings, one fatal. Story of a wedding day that ends in the slaughter of whole families. Talk of widespread rape during the conquering of Astrea and a man who has beaten and killed multiple wives. Story of whole slave crew in chains going down with a sinking ship. Story of main character nearly drowned by bullies as a child.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Passionate kisses with some rolling around on the deck of a boat. Talk of the former queen's many lovers.
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A few instances of "damn."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Sixteen-year olds drink wine with meals, on a ship, and at other gatherings. The older Kaiser gets drunk and becomes more belligerent than usual.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Ash Princess is the first book in a fantasy series that is not for readers who look for books with the word "princess" in the title. There's a 16-year-old princess, yes, but she's held captive for a decade, whipped repeatedly, and subjected to psychological torture by a Kaiser who has taken over her country, enslaved her people, and killed off most of them. The brutality is pretty close at hand, too. Besides being whipped, the princess is forced to kill her own father with a sword. A 13-year old is forced to drink a poison that burns her from the inside out. Other mature content includes some kissing and 16-year olds drinking wine. The publisher lists this book for early teen readers, but it seems more in line with books for high schoolers, not middle schoolers. High schoolers will more easily grasp the themes in Ash Princess. It examines the high price of governance by fear and absolute power, and whether a son should pay for the sins of the father.
Is It Any Good?
Fans of very dark fantasies should overlook the word "princess" in the title and dive into this absorbing world of cruel conquerors, court intrigue, and budding rebellion. Even though there's a 16-year-old princess who wears pretty dresses and fancies the prince, after 10 years of torture and the genocide of her people, she's also a princess seething with hatred and the need to do something. When Theo is forced to kill her own father, this darker side finally begins to overtake her. And when her guards are killed and replaced by rebels (though it seems highly unlikely, even with magical help, that this won't get noticed) Theo is ready for transformation. Yet ... what to do about the prince?
Author Laura Sebastian does a great job conveying the complexity of Theodosia's relationships -- with the prince who hates his own father; with Cress, the sheltered girl at court who claims to be Theo's friend; and with the rebels who don't trust that Theo is up for the job of leading a rebellion. What's missing is more on how the magic in this world works. We know that Theo thinks it's sacrilege to practice it without training, but know very little about what the power can really do. Perhaps Book 2 will enlighten us.
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