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.
My reading of YA books has been pretty much confined to Harry Potter (if that even counts!) and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Being an old codger, back when I was eleven there was no such thing as YA – you had kid’s books and you had adult books, and once you’d outgrown the one, you read the other, so the whole YA genre just wasn’t on my radar until I had kids of my own.
But Sherry Thomas writing YA? Given I’d read whatever this woman writes, even if it was the stuff on the back of cereal packets… yep, time to make a foray into this unfamiliar genre.
I had high expectations. Ms Thomas is one of my favourite HR authors and she hasn’t disappointed me yet. Her stories are always well told and beautifully written, and most importantly of all, she creates characters who aren’t perfect, but who are nonetheless compelling and easy to invest in.
She does exactly the same thing in The Burning Sky, telling an engaging story in a vivid way, and creating two protagonists who are as strongly and deeply characterised as any of the characters who have appeared in her other books. And she proves once again that she’s an absolute master of the art of creating romantic tension, because the romance that develops between the teenaged principals is utterly delightful and full of those little things – a look, a glancing touch, a simple avowal – that set the sparks flying, regardless of age or situation.
Set in the fantasy kingdom of The Domain and at Eton College in Victorian England, The Burning Sky is the first in a trilogy in which a handsome prince and a powerful mage must work together in order to free their homeland – the Domain – from the tyrannical yoke of the powerful realm of Atlantis.
For centuries, the Domain has been subject to the harsh, dictatorial rule of the Lord High Commander of the Realm of New Atlantis, otherwise known as The Bane, a powerful and seemingly indestructible mage; and the royal family of the house of Elberon have been no more than puppets on a hollow throne.
There have periodically been attempts at revolt, most recently the January Uprisings a decade or so earlier, but Atlantis’ control over the Domain is absolute and getting stronger. Spies are everywhere and everyone lives in fear of betrayal and punishment by the Inquisitor, a mind-mage capable of destroying the mind of anyone who resists interrogation.
Iolanthe Seabourne is only sixteen, yet is a powerful elemental mage, able to command three of the elements – fire, water and earth. There are no longer mages who can command all four, but even without the ability to control air, Iolanthe is still powerful enough to present a possible threat to Atlantis. Her guardian, a formerly renowned and well-respected academic who has been “hitting the bottle” more and more of late, insists on keeping her hidden away and in living continually on the move as he scrapes together a meagre existence by working as a tutor. Inwardly chafing at the dullness of life and dismayed at Haywood’s descent into addiction, Iolanthe jumps at the chance to participate in an upcoming wedding ceremony as the fire bearer. Pleased to have been invited, and, truth be told, excited at the opportunity to show off a little, Iolanthe has been carefully preparing a special batch of light elixir for the event. But Haywood finds out and forbids her from taking part, raving about agents of Atlantis and how they must not be allowed to find and capture her.
Iolanthe doesn’t believe a word of it, putting it all down to drug/alcohol induced mania – but Haywood destroys the elixir, thinking that will put an end to her plans.
Astonished and hurt, Iolanthe is determined to take part in the wedding, and seeks a way to repair the elixir – which she discovers can be done only if it is struck by lightning. Figuring that as she can create fire, she should be able to manage a lightning bolt, Iolanthe sets to work.
Many miles away, this particular bolt of lightning is seen by one for whom it signals the beginning of the mission for which he has been preparing almost his whole life. Prince Titus of the House of Elberon may hold the title “Master of the Domain”, but as he is not yet of age, his ineffectual uncle is currently the regent. Titus’ mother was a seer, and one of her visions told of this lightning bolt and how it would lead Titus to a powerful mage, one who can defeat the Bane.
Titus must find this mage, protect him at all costs and mentor him in his quest to slay the Bane and release the Domain from oppression. But this cannot happen without sacrifice – the vision also foretold Titus’ death, which is unavoidable and now only a year or two away.
That’s the set up. Not an especially original one – most fantasy stories seem to be about evil empires and freeing the oppressed, but what lifts this story above the run-of-the-mill is the superb characterisation and the relationship between Titus and Iolanthe.
Getting the negative things out of the way, they are both rather too good at everything. Titus has spent almost all of his life preparing for this task, it’s true, but still… he’s got a spell and an answer for everything! Part of that is down to the public persona he dons, as an insufferable smart-arse, but he does seem just a tad wise beyond his years. Yet even with that reservation, he’s an incredibly well-written character, whose actions are not always honourable (such as when he tricks Iolanthe into helping him, and in the way he continues to manipulate her to get her to do what he wants) but whose determination and focus are undeniable and at times, almost frightening in their intensity. He has a task to perform, and perform it he will, no matter that it will lead him to his own death.
Iolanthe is a similarly engaging character who really doesn’t want to be the saviour of her kingdom, or to be a hero. She’s brave and clever, yes, but she’s also confused and scared and, quite frankly, would much rather keep breathing than save the world, TYVM. Initially a bit bowled over by Titus’ good-looks and his insistence that he’ll look after her, she soon becomes aware that there’s a devious ruthlessness behind the pretty face. This leads to an estrangement between them, so there’s a large section of the book devoted to the development of their working relationship and showing Iolanthe’s gradually developing awareness of exactly what Titus is up against, and her own realisation that perhaps her own wants aren’t too important in the grand scheme of things.
Another little bug-bear for me is that I’m not a fan of “chicks-in-strides” stories, as I find it requires too strong a suspension of disbelief that a woman could possibly be thought to be a man simply by cutting her hair and wearing a suit. A lot of the story is set at Eton College in 1883, which as anyone familiar with historicals will know, was (and still is) one of the premier boys’ schools in Britain. Knowing he would need to be able to hide the mage from Atlantis’ spies, Titus invented a friend called Archer Fairfax who would also attend Eton. The problem is he’d not expected Archer to be a girl, so Iolanthe has to cut her hair and wear a suit (!). I can just about accept this with a sixteen year old girl, who might still be a bit “coltish” and not as er… womanly as someone a few years older.
What does work very well about the school setting is the sense that Titus has lived a very lonely existence, and that even among his Eton chums, there’s something about him that doesn’t quite fit in. His creation of Archer suggests that Titus has actually been looking forward to having someone he can talk to and share things with, things he can’t share with anyone else. The fact that “he” turns out to be a “she” throws him somewhat – and not just because Archer is supposed to be a whizz at cricket and he has no idea whether Iolanthe can play!
The attraction between the young couple is palpable right from the start. They don’t go beyond a few kisses (and quite right too!) but the little (and not so little) tell-tale signs of their growing feelings for each other are beautifully done, with a lot of insight and humour along the way. (The slightly naughty conversation about “wands” brought a smile to my face!) What comes across really strongly is that here are two people who need each other a great deal, and who will do whatever it takes to keep the other safe. Even though Titus tells Iolanthe early in the book, that she must never, ever put her own safety at risk to pull him out of danger, it’s clear that is one thing she’ll never do.
One last niggle about the book overall, is that I wasn’t completely convinced by the world-building. Sherry Thomas has written several books set in the Victorian era, and as expected, the parts of the story set in 1883 have a strong sense of time and place. But in the parts set elsewhere, I couldn’t quite get a handle on what I was supposed to be seeing in my mind’s eye. It’s a very minor criticism though, as my focus was on Iolanthe and Titus – I tend to be a character-oriented reader rather than a plot or setting oriented one – although I can see that the lack of full explanations for “how?”, “why?” and “where?” may be frustrating for some.
Taken as a whole, The Burning Sky is a terrific book, and one I’d certainly recommend if you’re not averse to YA or fantasy stories, and are in the mood for some light reading (!) The reservations I’ve expressed are really very minor ones, as I was thoroughly captivated from the first page to the last. The protagonists are engaging and fully-rounded characters, the verbal sparring between Titus and Iolanthe is sharp and funny, the romance is sweet (but not without a little warmth) and, as one would expect of Sherry Thomas, the writing is superb.