I was really unimpressed with this book, to be honest.
I’m not the kind of person who wants to read pages and pages of description of the appearance of one tree, but I've discovered that I do have a limit for how little description is too little, and this book (at least for the first half) has too little. The book starts with the protagonist, Yelena, being brutally tortured then given a deal to live then immediately starting her training on how to identify different poisons… and aside from the gruesomeness of the torture and the flavours of the poisons there was no description of anything!! Where the hell are we, aside from “generic dungeon”? I know the country’s called Ixia, but what is it like? What is its climate? What does the landscape look like? How does Yelena feel about it? Why is the only description given of the castle that it’s “geometric”? What does that even mean – aren’t all shapes geometric by definition?
So, the description was lacking, and the world-building kind of generic, and the level of gruesomeness a bit too high right at the beginning of the story without working up to it, but surely, surely, you might think, given the trend of other reviews, the characterisation might save it?
And the answer is… partially. Yelena herself is an interesting character. She’s survived a lot of horrific events, and while she struggles with trauma from that, she’s not crippled by it: she actually adapts pretty quickly to the palace scheming and plotting, and finds ways of keeping herself afloat. Then there’s Valek, who starts as an apparently cold-hearted, nasty character before acquiring more human layers. I did actually feel that some of those layers were eye-rollingly cheesy (ahem, having sex with Yelena once and calling her “my love” forever after and giving soppy speeches), but mostly it was compelling reading, seeing how he softened.
Most of the other characters lacked depth, though. Like Margg, the housekeeper, is just some mean old lady who hates Yelena for no reason. Yelena encounters a few different evil creepy men who just like raping and torturing all day because of how evil they are. There are also some guards who Yelena befriends who are just kind of generically nice/helpful. Now obviously you can't have every minor character in a novel facing epic conflicts and experiencing transformative character growth, but like… I would have liked a little more depth.
I also don’t understand why the publisher decided to crowbar this book into the YA category. It’s brutal and bloodthirsty with a lot of rapist villains… but all the YA classification means is that the only consensual sex scene in the whole book got replaced with some gibbering mush about how transcendental it is for two lovers’ minds to intertwine, becoming one, and blah blah blah. Not to mention that the lovers in question stink like shit and are hiding in a pile of straw in a dungeon at the time. Transcendental.
Man… I don’t want to make out like this is the worst book I’ve ever read, because it’s definitely not; the plot is structured fairly well and some of the characters (Yelena, Valek, Rand) and themes (tests of loyalty, the dependency between Yelena and Valek, defeating demons from your past, etc.) are interesting. But I didn’t like the torture scene at the start of the book (I think if you want a torture scene to be emotionally impactful and not just a turn-off, you need to get the reader invested in the character first), I didn’t like the shallowness of the description or half the characters, and I thought the climax was kind of meh. I’m glad I’m not obliged to read any of the others in the series, because most of the reviews are along the lines that the first book is great but then the quality drops sharply off a cliff, and I mean… I don’t want to see what “dropped sharply off a cliff” means in relation to this.
A disappointing read. Two stars.