Well slap me silly and call me Gertrude – I fully enjoyed a YA fantasy novel. This does not happen very often.
J.M. Miller has crafted a story that may boast a few of the standard YA fantasy tropes – a “different” heroine who knows her way around a sword, some unrequited love that threatens to evolve into a love triangle – but she deftly outmanoeuvres many more. This story is relatively short with no waffly paragraphs describing repetitive and dull feelings, and at no point did I want to shake our heroine, Vala, by the shoulders for her stupidity.
Vala is the head guard of Prince Caulden of Garlin. She takes her duties very seriously, not least because she kind of fancies him. She’s also very different from anyone else on her island kingdom – her skin is scorched (I imagined it like charcoal or cooled lava) and burns to the touch. She’s monstrous in appearance, and that helps her as a guard – people tend to think twice before making any moves against her prince. Vala has been dealing with the prejudices that come along with looking as she does for her entire life, and that’s made her a little defensive, a little slow to trust, a little lonely.
On the night before the Prince meets a Princess from a neighbouring kingdom for a possible marriage and alliance, an assassin attempts to end his life. Vala does her job, but not before she sees something that makes her hesitate – the assassin’s skin is just like hers.
What follows is an exciting, plot-led adventure with plenty of mystery. This is what made the novel stand out amongst the rest for me. Not only were there heaps of unknowns, questions, and conspiracy theories; but the answers weren’t obvious. I was continually grasping for answers and trying hard to figure it all out, unsure if I was being double bluffed, and there were a couple of twists I was truly not expecting. It’s so refreshing to read a YA fantasy where the ending isn’t painfully obvious. Miller is adept at showing, not telling, and it makes for a far more enjoyable read.
Some of the characters were a little stock-ish, but the fun plot, the tight writing and the simple yet solid world building made this a very welcome surprise. It’s rare that I enjoy YA fantasy, and even more rare that I would go on to read the second in a series, but Miller has convinced me that this world is one I should return to.