Fantasy Review Barn
Now here’s a thing: a book by Andrea K Höst that doesn’t set me on fire. It’s a perfectly fine, entertaining read, you understand, a solid YA fantasy with a little romance, but it just doesn’t quite have that extra something that normally lifts the author’s writing out of the ‘good’ column and into the ‘awesome’. That makes me sad.
It starts badly. The first few chapters are a blizzard of names and titles and nicknames and throwaway references to customs and ideas that the average reader can’t possibly understand. And is that an orphaned heroine of mysterious background I see before me? (Well, not quite but close enough.) And - surely not? - that can’t be a girl masquerading as a boy? But it is. Can we say ‘overused tropes’ here? Naturally the author is far too creative not to put her own twist on all this, but it’s still a slightly underwhelming start.
The magic of this world is quite intriguing. The rulers are chosen by the gods, rather than simply inheriting their power, and the gods give them a direct connection with their land. Their job is to maintain the balance of the land, so that it’s not overused or neglected, and they have powers to enable them to do that. The gods also intervene at death, choosing whether a soul is worthy to go to the sun god (a heaven equivalent), or goes to a different god to be cleaned up first. A very few are rejected outright, if they’ve been very evil, or are reborn, if they have some task to finish.
The plot involves someone going round bumping off herbalists. The heroine, Ash, the one pretending to be a boy, is a friend of one of those murdered, and is taken up by outsider Thornaster to help him investigate the murders, since she has some knowledge of herbs. So there’s a lot of sneaking around, and improbable mingling with the nobility, and dramatic rescues of various characters from attempted murders and the like. And it’s all great fun and a nice, easy read, so long as you switch off all logical thought.
The whole girl pretending to be a boy thing is the biggest obstacle for me. Is it really possible to do this convincingly? The author has considered some of the difficulties, like breasts and periods and ways of walking, but I always wonder quite how you’d get away with not being able to pee standing up. And here Ash is mingling with an entirely masculine crowd, yet nobody wonders why she always sneaks away to pee?
But if you can get past that, the story rolls along very nicely, in the usual crisis-resolution, crisis-resolution way, and I suppose the final explanations and tidying up of loose ends made some sense. It just all seemed a bit less surprising and a bit more ordinary than I’d anticipated. The romance, such as it was, started too easily and resolved itself without very many difficulties. There were some nice moments along the way, though, and I rattled through this at a fair pace, without ever losing interest. This is, by any standards, an enjoyable read. It’s only by comparison with some of the author’s other work that it falls a little short. Three stars.