Author: Sherry Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: September 17, 2013
Read: September 2013
Genre: YA Fantasy
Where It Came From: ARC from the BEA
Rating: 4 out of 5 Fairy Tale Training Stories
The Quick and Dirty:
Take one girl born to be the greatest elemental mage of her generation, add one crown prince determined to reclaim his governing powers, and mix them together in a magical Realm, 1883 Eton and a fantastic interactive fairy tale book. What you get is the charming beginning of a new trilogy.
The Wordy Version:
I was telling my mother about how interesting the fantasy author panel I attended at the Brooklyn Book Festival was, when she asked why I was even at the panel when I don’t read fantasy books. “But I DO read fantasy!” I protested, “Just not ADULT fantasy, for the most part.” The adult fantasy world seems so complex at times (and with such complex morality) that it’s difficult for me to start a book from those shelves. It doesn’t mean I don’t like having magical creatures and spells in my books, it just means I read six books at a time and have trouble juggling characters and terminology when they’re too intense. Enter YA fantasy, where magic comes with Right and Wrong and generally fewer plot threads; and enter, in particular, Sherry Thomas’s new Burning Sky.
Living in a magical Realm controlled by the Bane, a powerful and mysterious mage, Iolanthe has been in danger since her birth under a portentous meteor shower and her subsequent mastery of elemental magic. When, at sixteen, she summons lightning to fix an elixir, the secrecy measures her guardian has had in place are not enough to keep the Bane’s organization and the Realm’s nominative Crown Prince Titus from realizing that Iolanthe’s power can rival the Bane’s. Titus whisks Iolanthe to the nonmagical world of 1883 Eton, where she masquerades as a returning student and prepares to help Titus defeat the Bane and reclaim his rightful power over the Realm. The Bane’s Inquisitor suspects Titus is helping the mystery mage hide, and through spying, torture and might, she draws ever closer to finding Iolanthe, and destroying Titus’s chance for change.
It’s a relatively ordinary type of story—teenagers with exceptional abilities team up against a distasteful government, while discovering deeper feelings for each other—but with good main characters and enough details of its own to make the book charming. Character-wise, it’s all about Iolanthe and Titus. Titus is focused on his goal to the point that he is a jerk to Iolanthe without realizing how much his morals are in question. This rings true to me, as does Titus’s crush on Iolanthe, and the ways that his behavior changes to be more sensitive to her. Iolanthe keeps her motives for acting independent of the prince until she has gotten to know him as a friend and as a young man doomed to die young (more on this later). Her power (and Titus’s for that matter) is never so great that it overwhelms the world, but it is great enough that she can act meaningfully. It’s good that the main characters have so much going for them, because nobody else is developed enough for me to distinguish, though there are glimmers here and there that we may learn more about them in later books. Personally I’m hoping for more on Wintervale and his mother. (And a schoolmate who actually knows that a class on the Greek New Testament would NOT involve the long-gone locative case...)
As for fun fantasy details, the best is that Titus has inherited the Crucible, an enchanted book to help him learn magic, and he can go jumping through fairy tales in the Crucible as though he’s in a video game. I love the Crucible. Considering that Titus and Iolanthe come from a magical Realm and travel to high Victorian England, I was not expecting the stand-out setting of the The Burning Sky to be a not-quite-real world that shifts for each of its owners. But the Crucible is endlessly interesting. In addition to the training fairy tale modules (like defeating dragons to get to Sleeping Beauty), each reigning monarch of Titus’s line has created a classroom and an image of himself or herself to impart magical knowledge to the new user of the Crucible. As a way of explaining the history of the Realm and some of the limitations of the magic Iolanthe and Titus use, the Crucible’s classrooms are convenient, but when Iolanthe meets Titus’s image in his own tutorial, the Crucible becomes poignant. (As a slight spoiler, the Crucible’s training fairy tale grounds play a massive role in the plot in general. It’s only a slight spoiler because if you had created a fun magical type of video game, you would totally use it for the plot potential too.)
Also well done is Titus’s other inherited book, his late mother’s diary that magically shows him relevant prophetic visions she had before she died. I love prophecies in books, especially when someone has had a prophetic vision of death. There can be tension in characters doing dangerous things and risking their lives, but there is a beautiful urgency to characters moving towards their own envisioned deaths. Especially when the character is a teenage boy who hasn’t finished prep school or resolved his romantic longings yet.
On the subject of romance, this is one author who knows what she is doing. The pacing is not too fast book-page-wise (although within its world it is a little accelerated), and the details she uses to soften Titus’s character are excellent. I love that Titus’s favorite things to read in his leisure time are ladies’ advice columns on etiquette because they have solvable problems. And I love that he uses Iolanthe’s face for Sleeping Beauty’s so he can speak to her without real life rejection.
In all, The Burning Sky is a perfect example of why I don’t need to venture into the adult fantasy shelves. With a clear foe, a cute central romantic pairing, prophecies, a book world of fairy tale training, and the promise of two more volumes to finish the trilogy, my reading pile already has magic in it.