"A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last." --C.S. Lewis
You can find more of my reviews (plus discussions and giveaways) at Christina Reads YA.
1. (+) Iolanthe, the protagonist - Iolanthe. She starts off a determined, self-sufficient heroine who has to learn about magic on her own because her mentor's too busy making a fool of himself. Then there's that "ruined elixir" inciting incident, and she's thrust in an unfamiliar situation but does not break easily. The main aspect of this book involves Iolanthe becoming "Fairfax" (see trailer here; since it's mentioned there, I'm not considering this a spoiler). She cross-dresses as a boy attending Eton College while she hones her powers under Titus's tutelage. I felt pity for Iolanthe and wasn't quite sure what to think of her from the start (mostly because of the influences, which I will discuss below, and the fact that she's ripped away from her world before you begin to understand who she was before Eton). However, when Iolanthe became Fairfax, I warmed to her more brazen, take-charge, plucky attitude, and we got to see that Iolanthe determination spring anew, both in thwarting the prince and the Bane.
2. (+) Titus, the other protagonist - "Means to an end." The summary tells you a lot about Titus. He's determined and manipulative, and he's had to grow up alone and self-sufficient given his position as Master of the Domain. He's living his life with thin threads of hope for revenge, but he's just a cheeky boy who could use a bit of love, friendship, tenderness. In some ways, Titus reminds me of Prince Po from Graceling - sure, he makes mistakes, and he's had problems with his magic in the past (which we don't get to see), but do I picture him as a real character? Probably not. He's still fun to read about, though. Fun for those looking for book boyfriends. And though secret keeping usually bothers me in other novels, his tactics actually amused me.
3. (+) World-building - Two major aspects - the magical aspects and the Eton college setting - had to be explored, and both were amusing to say the least. I get the feeling that we've only reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the limits and rules of this world - if you need all the aspects to be fully explored as they happen, you might not like how this book handles world-building. You'll learn about magical transportation, wands and spellbooks, how the elements come into play. Best of all, there's the Crucible, which is a storybook that Iolanthe and Titus use as a magical training ground. Being exposed to the various levels (a kind of mix of magic and video gaming) and stories written into the Crucible and knowing of its rules made for great character development and unexpected plot twists too. Then there's also the Eton college setting and watching the camaraderie between a bunch of rowdy boys. Cricket and wand jokes and a nice contrast between the magical and the real world are involved. All in all, a spellbinding realization of a fantasy world that I'd love to explore more (you know how JKR is writing a screenplay on Fantastic Beasts? I could picture something similar of The Crucible and its various stories.)
4. (+/-) Influences/Tropes - The beginning was slightly off-putting to me given the immediate associations I'd had with other books. A mentor who reminded me of Haymitch, a girl who has take care of herself and her elders (Katniss) and does not know of her prophesied powers (Harry Potter). Marble the winged horse (thestrals?) as transportation as well as vaulting, mage transportation that seems similar to Disapparation except that it actually has limits (which you don't discover until later--so the beginning is a bit confusing). The use of a forgetfulness spell that has Latin roots (I think most of the spells did? I'm no linguist, though). And later in the story: the villain whose name people have grown to fear (the Bane; Voldemort; You-know-who). The villain's minion, the Inquisitor, a less annoying version of Umbridge. Prophecies, wand jokes, girl-pretending-to-boy (Tamora Pierce, no?), etc. etc. All of this, however, didn't really detract from the story for me, since it's nearly impossible to avoid any sort of influence or reminders that this book is not the first in its genre, and in the end, the Burning Sky made up for these associations by embracing its own differences (in the form of the Crucible and the writhing, genius blood oath).
5. (+) Romance - Are you a sucker for hate-turned-love stories? Are you a sucker for fairy tales? This book has got both, and a fresh twist on both. Iolanthe, at first confused and unsure, wants nothing to do with Titus when she realizes the means to which he'll go, and Titus is constantly plotting ways to entrap Iolanthe. It's funny to compare this realization to Titus's dream of the perfect fairy tale romance (see, I told you: cheeky boy who needs to be loved) and Iolanthe's initial impression of the stately prince. Their romance is more of the slow-burn variety as they face the agents of Atlantis, become friends who can actually trust one another, and are thrust into situation after situation with one another.
6. (+/-) Plot - Most of the times when people act according to a prophecy, I get confused. Would the prophecy still have been fulfilled had the other not known? What governs the limits for the Seer's predictions? Even still, this book has quite a few plot twists that I did not see coming, despite the tropes. This is what I love about high fantasy: when you can't quite predict what's coming next because you might just discover something new about the world that's already been established.
7. (+/-) Character Development - While I thought that it was really nice to watch Iolanthe cultivate her powers as quite the formidable mage, the cross-dressing aspect of the novel did not always work for me. Iolanthe says that she's able to imitate Eton boys because a few passed by her house? The explanation is something like that. Here's the thing: I have three older brothers who I've watched/idolized/etc. for many years. I would not be able to imitate them/boy interactions to the level of perfection that she imitates Eton boys. Fairfax vs. Iolanthe - are they actually the same person? This question sometimes popped into my head as I was reading. Fairfax is so much snappier, pluckier than Iolanthe, perhaps because Iolanthe was thrust into a stressful situation from the start and we didn't get to see her snark until she'd shaved her hair. Of course I had fun reading about Fairfax and felt pity for Iolanthe, but the ways in which the two were joined sometimes didn't work for me. As for Titus, his evolution, his softening was done quite well.
8. (+) Writing - It's Sherry Thomas. Have you ever read one of her historical romance novels? She is what drove me to read this novel. She can write romantic tension like few authors can, and we get to experience more of her skill with historical atmospheres in her YA debut. There are a lot of books where having dual third-person POVs do not work. This is not one of them.
9. (+/-) Pacing - Have you read Shadow and Bone? The pacing reminds me of that in S&B. No time is wasted before our protagonists meet and then are off to Eton while Iolanthe learns how to control her powers. It all builds to a great climax at the end. However, sometimes in the middle, I found myself bored, despite the general humor of the Eton situation.
10. (+) The Cover - I'm so glad that they changed the previous cover. The phoenix is quite representative, if not an actual element that I can remember, and the upside down castle thing really confused me. Both give the epic fantasy vibe, but this one's got more pop to it.
An epic fantasy laden with intrigue and magic, The Burning Sky will definitely appeal to Harry Potter fans who wanted more romance as well as fans of Tamora Pierce. Think Graceling meets Harry Potter but with the later nineteenth century London in mind; a formidable partnership to face down the Big Bad. A fun read for when you are in the mood for deciphering high fantasy worlds.
Even if you haven't read The Burning Sky, did you see the content not in the ARC that Sherry Thomas posted to her website? I always love finding little tidbits like that. Convinces me that the author has thought through a lot of the rules of the world and would have reason to write additional side stories.Want other opinions?
PS - have you read the book? Want to discuss?
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Do you think we'll get more Crucible stories? Will Sherry Thomas go the route of other trilogies and separate Iolanthe and Titus in the next sequel? What do you think the focus of the next book will be? Lady Callista - evil or redeemable? Master Haywood - larger role in the next book or no?
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