Written by: Sherry Thomas
Published by: Balzer + Bray
Release date: September 17th 2013
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Buy: B&N, Amazon, Book Depository
Add on: Goodreads
It all began with a ruined elixir and an accidental bolt of lightning…
Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she's being 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 greatest mage tyrant the world has ever known. A suicide task for anyone let alone a sixteen-year-old girl with no training, facing a prophecy that foretells a fiery clash to the death.
Prince Titus of Elberon has sworn to protect Iolanthe at all costs but he's also a powerful mage committed to obliterating the Bane to avenge the death of his family—even if he must sacrifice both Iolanthe and himself to achieve his goal.
But Titus 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 Bane closing in, he must choose between his mission and her life.
How to describe The Burning Sky…? This is a tough one, so I’ll use a
n awful metaphor. The best way I can describe this book is like… if you took Harry Potter, some YA epic fantasy, and some animated Disney movies like Mulan and Sleeping Beauty; then randomly pulled out sections (or scenes from the movies) of varying length, and shuffled them all together and covered the resulting pages in extremely sparkly glitter.
Does that sound mystifyingly entertaining? Yes! Shiny and happy-making? Yes! Does it also sound confusing and like it might be a little bit of a mess? …Yes.
The Burning Sky was a book I purchased pretty much immediately upon finding out that it employs one of my favorite scenarios ever – the whole “girl masquerades as boy in order to hide / do something she might otherwise not be able to do as a girl” kind of thing. Basically, give me a book where a girl has to disguise herself as a boy for some reason, and I am so there. The potential humor of the situation is great, but the main reason I love this is because it usually gives the girl a chance to kick some butt, and when the boys eventually find out that she’s not One Of Them, maybe it challenges their view of how capable women really are.
Anyway, luckily, I loved how this was written in The Burning Sky. It was a little different than the norm, as Titus knows all along that Iolanthe is a girl. But she is undercover at an all-boys school, so of course she has to fool all her classmates, which is entertaining (as these things are). Iolanthe succeeds spectacularly at convincing everyone that she’s a boy. Granted, she has some help thanks to this spell that Titus set up before she got to the school, creating an idea of Archer Fairfax, who everyone at school is convinced exists even before Iolanthe shows up to fill that role. But Iolanthe is also hilariously awesome at being the quintessential British schoolboy, which is highly entertaining. She shows the other boys how it’s done. And that whole scenario was actually my favorite thing about The Burning Sky.
The plot itself was pretty good, too, and the relationship between Iolanthe and Titus was great. Iolanthe is on the run because she possesses a level of magical power that hasn’t been seen in a very long time, and an evil mage, the Bane, wants to catch her in order to gain those powers for himself. Titus, the prince of his realm, wants the Bane dead for his own reasons, and he needs Iolanthe to help him get revenge on the evil mage. So he saves her from imminent danger, and helps her learn to harness her powers so eventually they can both go after the mage and defeat him. Their time together for the majority of the book is exciting and fun. And the relationship between Iolanthe and Titus (since it starts out as basically Titus kidnapping her for her own safety) goes from complete dislike, to grudging partnership, to respect and friendship, before it goes anywhere near actual relationship territory. It was adorable and often funny and totally I-just-want-to-smoosh-their-faces-together cute.
However… there is one major issue I had with The Burning Sky, which didn’t have anything to do with the characters — but rather, with the worldbuilding: I feel like this book gave off a vibe of simplicity, but the worldbuilding it attempted was anything but. The characters and plot and setting seemed almost appropriate for a borderline middle-grade book, or at least “younger” YA. But all the details of the magic systems, and the way everything is explained, just felt like they didn’t really pair well with that.
First off all, the book is chock full of endnotes (yes, like footnotes, except you have to flip to the back of the book to find them), which totally do not fit with the simplistic approach to the storytelling or quirky characters. They’re written in a more scholarly manner, like excerpts from historical texts or somesuch, and they are long. And unfortunately, I found them to be extremely annoying. They pulled me out of the story every single time I hit one. I dreaded coming across these things! And while they did explain a lot, I feel like endnotes were not the right way to go about this kind of explanation.
In addition to the endnotes, the in-story worldbuilding was confusing as all get-out. Or maybe “confusing” isn’t the right word… more like super busy. There are just soooo many things going on.
- First, there are multiple “mage realms”. I’m still not sure whether they’re actually separate universes, or if they’re located in one alternate universe to Earth and are just geographically distinct locations. There is much confusing travel between them (see below).
- There are multiple modes of magical travel. You can “vault”, which is basically Harry Potter’s apparition, except it’s apparently really hard and each mage has a range-limit, except they can take supplements to help them overcome those limits… Oh and you can do side-along
apparition–I mean vaulting, as well. There are also a whole bunch of portals that can be traveled through by train, or by flying horse(or other animal)-drawn carriage, or portals that are hidden in things like trunks and closets. These are fine all on their own, but when you have the characters using one and then the other and then another and–oh just go with it, they eventually traveled from point A to point B and it was all very confusing. Moving on.
- There’s also a storybook that you can travel into, filled with legends like Sleeping Beauty, where you battle a monster and “win” by saving the princess. Like a magical computer game, except it’s a book, and it’s actually real. Except you can’t die in it. …Except when you can.
- Places like Atlantis and other fairy tale elements are used totally differently from what we’re familiar with in our own fairy tales, because apparently the “real world” has built up legends around these names, but we got the stories totally wrong. This just served to confuse me as to why these names were used in the first place, instead of just making up a totally original name.
- And top it all off with two different types of magic, elemental magic and subtle magic. Elemental magic is older and grander, but subtle magic is more widely used in the story, being easier(?) and basically just more practical. I think.
For the record, I’m not usually one to complain when something is confusing — I’m not an unintelligent person, and I love detailed worldbuilding that’s organic and sensible. But while little details are always needed to add depth to a world, this level of apparent randomness wasn’t enjoyable for me. Cohesion is key. I feel like this could have been a more successful world if 70% of the magical extras were either removed or just changed somehow. Why throw in a city called Atlantis if it has nothing to do with the mythical lost city? Why include two separate magical systems when they could have been condensed and simplified into one? Why include all these different mage realms when it could have been one clearly distinct “magical” alternate universe, with some kind of portal to our “nonmagical” world? (Maybe this was actually the case? But if it was, I certainly missed that explanation.) So much could’ve been pared down. And I mean, I could tell that all these elements were mean to be Super Fun — but all thrown together, it was a bit too much.
If you’re not averse to living in a constant state of bafflement while reading about actually pretty great characters, then this might be a more appealing book to you than it was for me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s highly entertaining, and fast-paced enough once you get through the first couple chapters. Titus and Iolanthe are great together at the boarding school, as they try to make sure that Iolanthe doesn’t reveal herself to be a girl, and their relationship is sweet and progresses at a really good pace. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding did not live up to my expectations, to put it mildly. I’m not sure how I feel about this being a series — I loved Titus and Iolanthe, but I’m not sure if I’ll end up liking the sequel if I have the same issues with it, as I did with this first installment. So I’m crossing my fingers that my issues aren’t issues in the sequel, because I really would like to see more of Titus and Iolanthe!