Oh dear. I'm afraid I'm going to get kicked out of this blogging challenge. I'm zero for two on my ARCs in August ... but it's good to know what you don't like, right? Reader, know thyself.
I tried. I tried so hard to love Kingdom of Ash and Briars. I wanted to love it. But when I realized it was a Star Wars fanfic dabbling in Sleeping Beauty and general fantasyland warfare ... I was exasperated and frustrated and many other negative -eds.
In Kingdom of Ash and Briars, the author takes on a lot: fairy godmothers, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, war, ... Star Wars (more on that later). I really liked the concept of the magic system, but we're told, not shown, about its history. There's very little I enjoy more than a luscious description of magic. When it comes the the elicromancers on the continent of Niserra, we know very little. One could argue that much of the knowledge was lost many centuries ago, when people made war upon the elicromancers, nearly exterminating them. Now, only two remain: Lord Brack and Tamarice.
Four burly ne'er-do-well's kidnap a lord's kitchen maid, Bristal. One of them claims that he saw her transform into a rabbit the week before, and that this means she has poweful magic. Bristal doesn't remember anything about becoming a rabbit, but when four brutes hold your life in their hands, it's best not to argue. Unfortunately, they have no intention of holding her for ransom: they're taking her to the Water, a place of magical testing. Almost all of those who touch the Water die, because taking a dip in the lake means that you're trying to become an ancient type of magician. Not everyone can be an immortal magician--the Water practices strict population control. Bristal doesn't believe she is special, and fully expects to die when she hits the Water.
But of course she doesn't.
Instead, she is found deserving of one of the rarest items of all: an elicran stone, which marks her as an immortal elicromancer, a magical being. Her captors attempt to steal the stone and one of them shoots Bristal with an arrow. However, she is rescued by a man with a scar and a beautiful young woman. Meet Lord Brack and Tamarice, the last two elicromancers.
They take her far to the north, to an ancient elicromancer stronghold called Darmeska. There, Bristal learns more of her abilities. She has a rare gift: she is a Clandestine, able to change her shape and that of other things. Tamarace, a Terrene with power over the earth, recognizes the great influence that Bristal could have. But to fully access her powers, she must give into her strongest emotions: pain, fear, and rage. However Brack, who is older, more experienced, and more cautious, tries to keep Tamarace from delving into evil magic.
Hm. This sounds extremely familiar. Chosen one, curious powers, renegade apprentice ...where have I heard that before?
Anyway, moving on. Tamarace pretty quickly asks Bristal to help her out with dark elicromancy, involving death curses and blood spells, and Bristal refuses. When people you've just recently met start talking wistfully of the dark arts and how much blood you need for a really good curse, it's always a smart idea to run in the other direction. Bristal's rejection prompts Tamarace to give a very dramatic speech about how she is going to take revenge on the humans and then create a kingdom worthy of her and her awesome powers, etc. Then she runs away.
Brack continues tutoring Bristal in her transfiguration powers, and together, they attend the naming day of the new princess of Volarre. The King of Volarre has promised his daughter in marriage to the equally, definitely-not-of-age infant son of the King of Calgoran. Safety of the realm and all that. Long story short, Bristal pretends to be a fairy and grant a boon to the baby princess, but then--Maleficent shows up!
No, wait, sorry, Tamarace shows up. She casts this blood curse on Rosamund, the baby princess, and for most of it, Bristal just stands there. Then she realizes she should probably do something about the mad, murdering elicromancer and whips out these superpowers, breaking Tamarace's elicran crystal and stripping her of her power. Bristal doesn't stop the curse from taking hold, however, Brack comes up with a genius plan: Bristal gets to disguise herself as an older woman and raise Rosamund in secrecy, and he'll go gallivanting around the continent searching for Tamarace.
Oh, that's not sexist at all.
That's where I gave up. I ended up skimming a bit to the end and it seems that Bristal not only gets the prince but has super-special parents, too. Sigh.
I mentioned earlier that I know that Star Wars is so beloved because it is a story of archetypes, which means that fundamentally, it's a very human story. Of course there will be other stories that resemble it, in one way or another. But here ... some of the lines are so very close to the films, and the characters follow arcs that have already been trod by Jedi and Sith.
For example, when instructing Bristal, Tamarace tells her, "Have you ever been so angry, so torn, that you felt everything and nothing all at once? ... Feel that fear again ... Whatever you feel, let it melt to anger." When Bristal does so, her transformations are much more powerful. Remember, Bristal, that the Dark Side is quicker, easier, more seductive. When Obi-Wan Brock tries to correct Tamarice Anakin Maleficent, he tells her, "It's dangerous, Tamarice ... desire is dangerous."
Said the entire Jedi Coucil to Anakin Skywalker.
As for Bristal? Well, she is too dull to be Ahsoka, too pliant to be the stubborn Luke. However, in a way, she is Anakin, being used as a pawn between light and dark because of her powers.
Yes, I went there. I went full-on Star Wars mythos geek mode in this review. And I will never apologize.
If you don't mind a very, very slow-paced fantasy mashup with a milquetoast main character and an uncanny resemblance to Star Wars, Kingdom of Ash and Briars may be for you. Otherwise, may I suggest one of the following fairy tale retellings?
A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley
The Princess and the Hound by Mette Ivie Harrison
A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston
Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst
Sweetly by Jackson Pearce
Entwined by Heather Dixon
Thornspell by Helen Lowe
I received an ARC of this title from the publisher.