Sometimes when you have a favourite author, you have to make some tough decisions on whether or not to give tough love when you don’t end up enjoying their latest book. Or, as what typically happens, you can be so far up the author’s ass that you’ll never say a bad word against them because you “can’t find it in yourself to say something mean about them.” I don’t have time for that.
Listen, Jennifer L. Armentrout has been my favourite author for a few years now and that’s something that will most likely never change, as her books have done so much for me, but this is the worst thing I’ve ever read from her in my opinion. From all the hype and lead up to this book, in addition to the surprise release, I expected great things out of this book. Newsletter updates constantly said how it was going to be new and different, and how she was trying something she’s never done, but whatever this book is did not pay off or live up to the hype. And I hate it. I am beyond upset that this is not what I expected it to be and I’m sure there are a multitude of reasons why that happened, some that make sense and some that don’t, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the bottom of it. All I know is that this book is not what I expected, and not in a good way.
The biggest thing that stood out to me in regards to my immense dislike is the utter lack of world building. If you’re planning on writing whatever we all think a “high fantasy” is, then you really need to commit to the world building. And I don’t think JLA committed the way she was supposed to. Time and time again, I had to go back multiple pages and refer to the synopsis just to figure out what this world was supposed to be, and if that’s not a big neon indicator that we have a problem here then I don’t know what is. I suppose the division between Ascended and Atlantians is clear enough, but what’s not clear is what an Ascended actually is, and it’s like we’re meant to kind of figure out what that means on our own. But overall, this world and their people, traditions, and general beliefs don’t make sense and by the time we finally get the info dump on what all of this supposedly means, it’s far too late for the reader to particularly care. By the time I finally understand what an Ascended is, what they’re Ascending to and for, it’s not at all worth it. It felt like the concept was there, for sure, but I think because JLA is so used to paranormal realism, she didn’t feel the need to actually develop and invest in her world building because she’s never actually had to build an entirely new world before. I think that’s what disappoints me the most about this world; she’s so used to relying on the world we live in for her stories and peppering out the info dumps near the end when it becomes most relevant, but didn’t realize that you can’t do that in fantasy. We need to understand the world we’re being introduced to, we need to understand how these people live, and it can’t be last minute. If world building was simply vague concepts and unnecessarily capitalized nouns and verbs, then the fantasy genre would be in a great deal of trouble.
The thing I heard over and over about this book from JLA is that it was going to be different than anything she’s ever done before, but after reading it I find that statement pretty hard to believe. If she wanted to go out of her comfort zone and try something different then she’d make the effort, especially with her writing. But she didn’t. Apparently, she can venture into a high fantasy-type of story but won’t relinquish her contemporary style of narrative, therefore making this more or less the same as what she’s done before. I’ve had arguments about narrative styles lately and what I’ve deduced is that first person narratives are perfect for contemporaries, and third persons are better suited for fantasy and sci-fi stories. I would’ve loved to have seen this story told in third person but that didn’t happen. Instead, it’s the same writing style I’ve seen from JLA time and again but there was this nagging feeling inside me that it was actually worse this time around. The inner monologue and various conversations didn’t suit the fantasy genre, in my opinion, and alluded to a tone that I could not take seriously. I’ve always felt like JLA’s narrative style of writing more or less suited the stories she was telling, and could always differentiate voices between different series, but this was like a conglomerate of all those voices with a spotlight saying “I don’t belong here at all.” The most prominent thing about JLA’s writing in any book is her use of ellipses, and I completely understand that that’s her personal style, but this book was like an ellipses overload. If she had a better editor they could’ve caught at least 50% of the irrelevant ellipses and made the story flow much more smoothly. And since it’s a first person narrative, and apparently Poppy’s inner monologue pauses every five seconds to properly form a thought, the ellipses came out thousands of times and in my opinion it made Poppy seem weak and indecisive, but more on that later. I would personally love to know what possessed JLA to write in such an inappropriate voice for this kind of book because this is not how you should write a fantasy book, YA/NA or not.
I’m not gonna lie, but these characters felt like bland carbon copies of previous JLA characters I’ve loved and not one person felt new or inventive out of the main cast. Beginning with Poppy, as I got closer to the end of the book, the more I grew to immensely dislike her. My biggest issue with her, which is a call back to the meek world building, is how she was this “shiny and mysterious” Maiden but had literally no clue as to what her purpose was in this world. And as the reader, I still have no idea what the point of her character is other than to represent archaic and misogynistic ideals about women, but I digress. How can we have a character who is supposedly beyond important to a people, but both she and the reader don’t know how or why? But of course, her main defining trait is that she doesn’t want to feel helpless so she’s been secretly trained on how to defend herself. I don’t know about you, but I’m beyond tired of that type of trait that’s more or less the evolved “not like other girls” trope. Most of all, in my opinion, Poppy was just incredibly naive, ignorant, stubborn, and impressionable and nothing about her made me feel like she was a good protagonist. Dare I say she’s been so brainwashed into her simple, caged way of life that she refuses to see other sides of arguments and history? Maybe so. But the fact that she throws all her trust into the first guy who looks her way is not overly reassuring about her character. And then there’s Hawke who, again, fell victim to the overused and overtired “secret identity” reveal plot device, something that someone smarter than Poppy could easily figure out (i.e. me). I don’t overly mind who he turned out to be, since that part of the plot might be the one thing that garnered my interest, but I think the way that Poppy both could not see it before his identity was revealed and then the way she handled it, with her dismissive ignorance, it made all of it to be really unnecessary and not as shocking as it was supposed to be, I guess. I don’t hate Hawke, since I actually view his side to be the better one and he’s not the “evil villain” Poppy wants him to be so she feels some kind of validation; I just hate how Poppy decided to treat and regard him.
Honestly, I think this book was a mess because JLA did that thing where books “straddle the line of YA/NA” because the world refuses to acknowledge New Adult as a legitimate genre and space for us 20 year olds. But because she wanted to keep her YA style of narrative yet write in the romantic NA scenes, and at the same time write a fantasy world meant for an Adult audience, it all felt like puzzle pieces that were forced to fit but ultimately couldn’t. If she committed to simply writing a NA fantasy, which would feel more Adult than YA in the long run, then maybe this would’ve worked better for me. But because she tried to write an NA romance with YA tendencies, therefore forcing her to focus more on the romance story than the actual fantasy plot, it didn’t work. And really, the romance itself wasn’t particularly groundbreaking or earth shattering either. It was predictable, somewhat bland due to the copied characters, and if I’m being extremely honest, it tried far too hard in some instances. But it was clear that the biggest factor of this book was supposed to be the romance, not the actual plot, and that’s not what a true NA fantasy is supposed to look like. But again, the world of publishing isn’t ready for that conversation.
I’m not criticizing JLA to be rude or to feel validated, I’m doing it because I legitimately care and while I know she’ll never see this review, it’s important to offer my constructive criticism nonetheless. I tried to make this book work and to find something to like about it, I really did. But nothing I did garnered a positive emotion out of me and I just felt disappointment. All I’m saying is that if JLA really wanted to try something different with this new series she would’ve ventured a lot more out of her comfort zone. Because this? It’s not something I particularly want to see. This isn’t a good NA fantasy, or whatever you want to refer to it as, and is certainly not worth the hype. But again, that’s just my opinion.
Chosen from birth to usher in a new era, Poppy’s life has never been her own. The life of the Maiden is solitary. Never to be touched. Never to be looked upon. Never to be spoken to. Never to experience pleasure. Waiting for the day of her Ascension, she would rather be with the guards, fighting back the evil that took her family, than preparing to be found worthy by the gods. But the choice has never been hers.
The entire kingdom’s future rests on Poppy’s shoulders, something she’s not even quite sure she wants for herself. Because a Maiden has a heart. And a soul. And longing. And when Hawke, a golden-eyed guard honor bound to ensure her Ascension, enters her life, destiny and duty become tangled with desire and need. He incites her anger, makes her question everything she believes in, and tempts her with the forbidden.
Forsaken by the gods and feared by mortals, a fallen kingdom is rising once more, determined to take back what they believe is theirs through violence and vengeance. And as the shadow of those cursed draws closer, the line between what is forbidden and what is right becomes blurred. Poppy is not only on the verge of losing her heart and being found unworthy by the gods, but also her life when every blood-soaked thread that holds her world together begins to unravel.