By Cynthia Ayala
“Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia’s family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess–a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner. For ten years Theo has been a captive in her own palace. She’s endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside. Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hope of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword. And power isn’t always won on the battlefield. For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.” —Goodreads
What a brilliant novel. Ash Princess captures a thrilling and unique story by showcasing a magical kingdom conquered by the non-magical. That is probably the one element in the novel that sets this novel apart from any others. Of course, the premise of a displaced princess is not a unique one, let’s face it, it is a story that has been done in a million different ways. That said the added element of the magic users overthrown by brute force is an interesting one and essential to making this novel work and stand out. Honestly, it is a breath of fresh air to see magic not be the omnipotent source in the novel because fantasy has a way of showing magic, especially elemental magic, as this source of godlike power, but here that is not the case. Sebastian takes that concept and flips it on its head while also delivering an impressive narrative.
Theo is such a vibrant character and in some ways resembles Sansa Stark. Her people hate her because they believe she lives in luxury. While this might be true, Theo is also a prisoner, a plaything for the malicious king. However, there is a fire inside her. What begins as an ember, flourishes with life, power, and a strength that she has long forgotten in her golden prison.
Her environment also presents readers with complex characters. Theo is a complex character, as is the prince and Crescentia. These dynamics are so complex and create such powerful tension in the novel because Theo loves these people, not because they are her captors, but because when times were dark, and others abused her, they strove to protect her, to make her life more bearable. However, they are still her guards, and she is still their “pet” despite it all. That is where the novel indeed finds it is fire, in those complex dynamics and the tension that is created by it. Theo exists, stripped of her real name and title, but her heritage, her roots, and her people are something she will never forget. The pain she sees in her people, she cannot let that go, she cannot forgive the Kalovaxian’s for what they have done, and her protectors, well they are still her enemies despite it all.
It is such a complex narrative, but also a relatable one as well. The concept of conquering and slavery is one that the world is all too familiar with, and the hints at the skin tone directly reflect the slave trade. It is unmistakable and sends a powerful message to the reader, a message about what is right and what is wrong and what it means to be conquered, abused, and enslaved. It is essential because it is a part of history that should never be neglected or forgotten and allows for diversity to play a role in the storytelling.
Overall, this was a fantastic novel. It has a compelling voice and complex characters that make it riveting. It is also nice to note that while romance tends to have a high place in young adult fantasy novels, while it may exist here, it is not the focus of the story. The story is about Theo and her goals, her imprisonment and her fight for freedom for herself and her people. That right there is just another part of why this novel stands out. (★★★★☆ | A)