Books Read in 2016: ‘The Burning Sky’ by Sherry Thomas #amreading
Book Summary from Goodreads:
It all began with a ruined elixir and a bolt of lightning.
Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she’s been told. The one prophesied for years to be the savior of The Realm. It is her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the most powerful tyrant and mage the world has ever known. This would be a suicide task for anyone, let alone a reluctant sixteen-year-old girl with no training.
Guided by his mother’s visions and committed to avenging his family, Prince Titus has sworn to protect Iolanthe even as he prepares her for their battle with the Bane. But he makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should have been only a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the tyrant closing in, Titus must choose between his mission—and her life.
The Burning Sky—the first book in the Elemental Trilogy—is an electrifying and unforgettable novel of intrigue and adventure.
I, personally, think that the book’s prologue makes for a better back-cover/marketing blurb than the summary above:
Just before the start of Summer Half, in April 1883, a very minor event took place at Eton College, that venerable and illustrious English public school for boys. A sixteen-year-old pupil named Archer Fairfax returned from a three-month absence, caused by a fractured femur, to resume his education.
Almost every word in the preceding sentence is false. Archer Fairfax had not suffered a broken limb. He had never before set foot in Eton. His name was not Archer Fairfax. And he was not, in fact, even a he.
This is the story of a girl who fooled a thousand boys, a boy who fooled an entire country, a partnership that would change the fate of realms, and a power to challenge the greatest tyrant the world had ever known.
The book summary is a little deceptive on this one . . . Iolanthe isn’t told she’s the greatest elemental mage of her generation—not in the beginning anyway. She’s been led to believe that she’s an okay mage. Better than most people who just use everyday (“subtle”) magic—but because she can only control (she believes) three of the four elements, she’s not considered one of the “greatest”—as are those who have control of all four elements (earth, air, fire, water). She’s got earth, fire, and water down pat. But it’s when she accidentally calls upon the power of the air—with strength that she cannot control or comprehend—that she lands in a world of trouble
Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It was a book that I had so many problems with that it took me two full posts (Part 1, Part2) in order to express most of thoughts about and reactions to the book.
Right from the beginning of that book, I had a big problem with it being a typical YA novel about a young woman who is a special-snowflake-chosen-one. One of the main reasons I took issue with this trope in Uprooted is because the first-person narrator spends the first (many) pages narrating over and over and over again just how not-special she is.
The difference between that book and this one (aside from this one being in third rather than first person) is that this one just starts in the middle of the main character doing something. She’s not giving her life story. She’s not spending page after page bemoaning how not-special and gawky and awkward she is and how she’s not the beautifulest or specialest girl in the village. She’s just doing something. And one of the key guidelines for writing good fiction that every author should know and employ is to let the reader get to know the character through actions, not through narrative (i.e., show don’t tell).
Iolanthe doesn’t give us page after page of narrative stuck inside her head about who she is and what her place in society is. We don’t get paragraphs-long descriptions of the history of her village/society or the prophecy concerning the great elemental mage-to-come. We don’t get a rundown of the political system. Instead, the story opens (after the above, wonderfully engaging prologue) with Iolanthe doing what she does: using her magic to manipulate fire and water—practicing for a performance at a wedding.
Once we see Iolanthe doing this, her joy at being able to manipulate the elements she knows how to work with, her excitement over performing at the wedding, then, and only then, do we start learning about what’s going on in society around her. Then and only then is the idea of outside forces and her possible connection to them—and their likely danger to her—introduced. It doesn’t take long. Just a few pages (on pages 9–10 in the print version).
This immediately introduces conflict between Iolanthe and her guardian—he doesn’t want her to perform at the wedding because there will be collaborators there. The Domain, the kingdom in which Iolanthe lives, is being oppressed by Atlantis and its Lord High Commander Bane. What Iolanthe doesn’t know at this point is the prophecy of the great elemental mage who will come and defeat the LHC and break Atlantis’s dominion over the Domain.
However, Prince Titus, the ruler of the Domain, does know of this prophecy. After all, his mother was a great seer; and her journals, in which she recorded her visions of the future, have been his guide his whole life, preparing him for the day when the greatest elemental mage would appear. He is to be the mage’s guide and protector—and sacrifice his own life in service to helping the mage defeat Atlantis.
Iolanthe’s guardian pollutes the potion that she was supposed to use for her performance at the wedding. Because she doesn’t want to fail on her promise to these people, she decides to take a piece of advice scribbled in an unknown hand in the margin of a book: summon lightning to purify the potion. But with no power (she thinks) over air, how is she supposed to be able to do that?
When Titus sees the magical lightning bolt streak through the sky—just as his mother’s vision foretold—he knows the time has come. The mage is ready; is he?
In The Burining Sky, well-known historical romance author Sherry Thomas makes the leap into YA fantasy—and she does a fantastic job! Her world-building is marvelous. The magical realm exists alongside the mundane, everyday world of 1880s England, where Prince Titus attends Eaton. And the magical world includes wonderfully imaginative elements, such as a “storybook” into which the two main characters enter in order to be trained in magical combat and to learn the history of the Domain, as well as potion and spellwork, from Titus’s royal ancestors.
This is the first book in a series, so of course not all of the storylines are wrapped up neatly at the end. But it was so well done (especially hinging on the question of whether or not Titus will have to sacrifice his life to help Iolanthe fulfill her destiny) that I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books. (Plus as an experienced romance author, Thomas was able to craft the developing relationship between Iolanthe and Titus quite well throughout the story.)
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