The Immortal Heights (Elemental Trilogy #3) by Sherry Thomas

immortal heights

In a pursuit that has spanned continents, Iolanthe, Titus, and their friends have always managed to remain one step ahead of the forces of Atlantis. But now the Bane, the monstrous tyrant who bestrides the entire mage world, has issued his ultimatum: Titus must hand over Iolanthe, or watch as his entire realm is destroyed in a deadly rampage. Running out of time and options, Iolanthe and Titus must act decisively to deliver a final blow to the Bane, ending his reign of terror for good.

However, getting to the Bane means accomplishing the impossible—finding a way to infiltrate his crypt in the deepest recesses of the most ferociously guarded fortress in Atlantis. And everything is only made more difficult when new prophecies come to light, foretelling a doomed effort….

Iolanthe and Titus will put their love and their lives on the line. But will it be enough?

Rating: A-

The Immortal Heights is the final book in Sherry Thomas’ YA fantasy Elemental Trilogy, and brings to a very satisfying conclusion the story of Prince Titus of the House of Elberon and Iolanthe Seabourne begun in The Burning Sky and continued in The Perilous Sea . I don’t normally read Young Adult fiction, but I’m a huge fan of the author’s, so her name on the cover was enough to get me reading. And once I started, I was completely hooked, because the whole trilogy is utterly compelling and I can say without hesitation that this series surely represents a pinnacle of achievement in the genre. It’s Sherry Thomas – so it goes without saying that the writing is superb – but she has also crafted a terrific adventure story which incorporates one of the most deeply felt and beautiful romances I’ve ever read.

This is one of those times when it really is necessary to read all the books in order so that the story can be fully appreciated; and as neither of the first two books has been reviewed here, I’m going to talk about all three of the books in this review.

For as long as he can remember, Prince Titus of the Royal House of Elberon and Master of the Domain has known of the prophecy that he will, one day, defeat the cruel and tyrannical High Commander of Atlantis (otherwise known as The Bane) and free his people from fear and oppression. He will not, however, perform this onerous task alone; in fact his will be rather a secondary role as his task is to protect, at all costs, the great elemental mage who will actually do the deed. As he is just sixteen, the Domain is ruled by a regent (Titus’ uncle, who is little more than an Atlantean puppet), and Titus has been allowed to attend a non-mage school – Eton College in Victorian England. He has prepared well for the coming of the mage, inventing a persona and weaving various spells among his housemates so that when the mage eventually arrives, it will seem as though he has always been there. But Titus, a young man who has spent his life in preparation – learning how to fight both physically and with extremely complicated magic, learning everything he can about healing, about all forms of magic, about… basically, everything and anything – has forgotten to take into account one thing. He hadn’t given a thought to the fact that the most powerful elemental mage of their time … might be a girl.

When she’d summoned a bolt of lightning to revive a failing batch of elixir, Iolanthe Seabourne had never imagined it would throw her into the path of danger, adventure and destiny. The Burning Sky basically tells the story of how Titus and Iolanthe – who assumes the identity of Archer Fairfax at Eton – progress from their initial wariness and distrust to form an unbreakable bond of friendship and loyalty as they work together to confront the forces of Atlantis in what turns out to be the first skirmish of what will later turn into a full-scale conflict.

The Perilous Sea is perhaps the most romantic book of the three, as Titus and Iolanthe find themselves inexplicably in a situation where they have no memories of their past or of each other. Watching them falling in love all over again is a real delight, but Sherry Thomas doesn’t let up on the action front, skilfully interweaving narratives in dual time-lines that gradually converge to let the reader – and the protagonists – in on the secret as to how they got to where they started out. In the course of this story, Titus makes a discovery that turns everything he thought he knew upside-down, causing heartbreak for himself and Iolanthe, and raising the stakes as the final confrontation looms ever closer.

The Immortal Heights picks up exactly where The Perilous Sea leaves off – with Titus, Iolanthe and their fellow rebels declaring war on the might of Atlantis. Ms Thomas writes the action sequences very well, making it easy for the reader to get a clear picture of what’s going on amid the myriad of flying carpets, armoured chariots and flying wyverns, floating fortresses, ancient libraries and castle strongholds. But running beside all the magic and the action is the incredibly well-written, tender romance between the mage and the prince that began in the first book. Sherry Thomas is a consummate writer of romance, so once again, it’s no surprise that the relationship between Titus and Iolanthe is such an important part of the overall story, and it’s probably the element I enjoyed the most. Having two teenaged protagonists necessitates a less explicit romance, perhaps, but it’s certainly not without its heated moments and the chemistry between the couple is palpable. Both protagonists are engaging, fully-rounded characters who, while possessed of a maturity beyond their years, never come across as adult characters written into younger bodies. Titus is, it has to be said, a hero to swoon over – he’s handsome, fiercely intelligent, authoritative, witty and deeply loyal, with an underlying vulnerability and deeply-buried sweetness that he only ever allows Iolanthe to see. Above all, he is determined to fulfil the prophecy and free his people, even though, according to that prophecy, he will die in the fight. He has lost so much – his mother, his freedom, his childhood – but he has accepted his fate and all he wants is to protect Iolanthe and for her to live a long, happy life. Needless to say, she does not share Titus’ views about that – even when he tells her, in The Burning Sky she is to save herself and not worry about him when they get into tricky situations, she will have none of it and is as determined to keep him safe as he is determined to do the same for her. She is the perfect foil for him – just as intelligent, strong and determined as the prince, but with a more optimistic outlook that complements Titus’ more driven approach, and which starts to loosen him up a bit. This is a couple who are truly devoted to each other; they support each other without question, and the fact that they have reached a point when they don’t need words to express their feelings is truly affecting.

The story itself explores some complex themes, and while there are some elements which no doubt occur in many YA fantasies (like the baddie seeking immortality), I haven’t read enough of them for it to feel samey; so for me, this whole trilogy was a refreshing departure from my normal reading fare. I teared up several times while reading, and was genuinely sorry when I reached the final page. If Ms Thomas ever decides to take up the story of the mage and her prince again – and there are hints of other exploits in the epilogue – then I’ll be at the front of the queue with the grabbiest hands.

The Immortal Heights is a worthy successor to the earlier books, and a terrific conclusion to a hugely enjoyable trilogy. The fantasy/adventure story is very well thought-out and executed, but ultimately, it’s the strong bonds of friendship and trust that develop between the small group of central characters, the excellent dialogue, and the heartfelt romance that make this series into something special.

Advertisements

The Burning Sky (The Elemental Trilogy #1) by Sherry Thomas

burning sky

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.

Rating: A-

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.