The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sherry Thomas has proven herself as an author who uses the written word with a palpable love and respect for its power. I haven't had much luck with Young Adult books lately (with a few exceptions). They don't delve as deep as I would like, and rely on conventions and mechanisms that I find irritating. With "The Burning Sky", Thomas has encouraged my long held belief that young adult books can be vibrant, intelligent, thought-provoking, engaging, and have the substance I long for in a book.
The world-building in this book is careful and thorough without being too dogmatic or dragging down the narrative pace. I appreciated the manner in which Thomas layers her storytelling so that it feels as though I can delve deeper into this world, if I so choose, without the foundations falling apart or revealing nothing but wooden planks or steel girders. Instead, I felt as though this story is barely scratching the surface. At the same time, she doesn't resort to the most hated of all YA devices, the cliffhanger. Yet, this is obviously a story that promises to continue into at least a few volumes, but she concludes it in a satisfying manner that allows the reader to choose to read the next book, instead of being blackmailed into continuing the series.
I also loved the characterization. Iolanthe is a heroine who feels real. She has strengths and weaknesses. She is sympathetic, without being perfect. "The chosen one" storyline can get a little stale, but it's well handled in Thomas' hands. I root for her to find her way in a crazy reality and to be herself, but also do what is right. Titus is about the most perfect prince I've read. Perfect in the best way. He's got an edge that I love. He's flawed but also incredibly appealing. His inner vulnerabilities have been camouflaged very carefully by an arrogant, bitingly sarcastic mien. I had to remind myself that he was jailbait, because I was seriously crushing on him. He's a man with a mission, and nothing will sway him from it, not even the threat of his future demise. Even though Iolanthe has a valid reason to dislike him, I can identify with her struggles not to fall in love with him. While Titus is using Iolanthe and he knows it, it's clear he wishes he could be with her free of the rigid burden that binds them together, but also drives a wedge between them. But he's willing to do the wrong thing for right reasons. I loved that about him. Watching these two fall in love was very satisfying in a way that I crave from a good romance novel. The great thing is the love story is a viable and intrinsic part of a smart, intelligent epic-style fantasy.
The fantasy elements stand up to close scrutiny. Readers who loved the Narnia and Harry Potter series, along with fans of Howl's Moving Castle will be very happy with this novel. The concept of a mage world that borders on the mundane, human world has always appealed to me. I often wished my closet hid a doorway to a fantasy world. I freely admit it. And there is also an alluring nod to fairy tales in that Prince Titus has a book that allows him and his new protege Iolanthe to train and hone their mage skills. While Titus acts as a mentor to Iolanthe, she doesn't sacrifice any strength or identity in the process. It's clear that Titus can't help but look up to Iolanthe as a gift who can bring restoration to his world, and he is willing to take incredible risks and sacrifices for her to achieve her potential.
The action and fantastic scenes are beautifully described. I felt like I could see them on a big movie screen. The use of legendary creatures made me shriek in joy in a very ladylike fashion inside. I didn't care about being a princess, but I sure did love the Pegasus, unicorns and dragons. I would like to see this series as movies, well done, of course.
I can't say enough good things about this novel. I'm ashamed I put off reading it for so long. But it's one of those great accidents that I read this when I needed to. While I admire Thomas as a historical romance novelist, I hope she continues writing fantasy, Young Adult or otherwise, since that is my second love.
I highly recommend this novel.
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