The Above and the Under have a tenuous truce that is shattered after the death of both their respective rulers. Gemma, the new queen of Under, must throw history aside and team up with Tollan, the heir to the Above throne, in order to take down a power that seeks to rule them all.
Their group of rebels is comprised of an assassin, a sex worker, and a palace servant from Above, and we follow their unique perspectives as they are forced to question previously held beliefs. But even with war looming, romance still grows. Challenging gender roles and the expectation that every prince must have a princess, Tollan discovers love with Elam—a young man, a sex worker, and one of Gemma’s closest friends.
Be prepared for a long winded review where I completely lose my mind and go on bullet point rants
*Thank you so much to Page Street for sending me over a copy for this!! I super appreciate it, it was a fantastic surprise, and it did not change my opinion of it at all!*
To be honest, I had never heard of this book before the kind and gracious people over at Page Street sent me this book and it ended up in my mailbox. It sounded like such an interesting premise, and when I saw on a little piece of paper that informed me that it was Leigh Bardugo meets Sleeping Beauty, I whipped that book open as fast as I possibly could.
However, the book that I got…I’m not even sure whereeeeeeeeeeeeeee to begin. There was so, so much that I just am at a total and complete loss. I can’t even explain everything to you because me just explaining half of the book to Sha over chat was a straight up hour plus another half an hour of email updates because I had full on convinced her to be so invested in the insanity that was this book.
Let’s start off with something simple: THIS IS NOT YA THIS IS NOT YA THIS IS NOT YA. It’s probably NA? The book straight up says on the back 17+, but it deals with a lot of graphic situations like murder, rape, and there are quite a bit of sexual content in there (um, there is literally sex worker priests, so that’s a thing). So, um, I just didn’t anyone wanted to walk in here thinking it was something it wasn’t. Just a disclaimer.
I have to say that the first…40 pages were really good. I was invested. I thought it was a cool premise, and I thought Gemma was a great heroine. I was intrigued by the world, and it kind of had a Six of Crows feel to it. Like, except grittier? Imagine grittier Six of Crows in high fantasy land. I have to give the author major props because she created a super cool vibe to it.
However, after about the glorious 40 pages, literally everything went downhill. I mean, everything. I started getting super confused. Big revelations lasted two paragraphs. Unimportant characters somehow became narrators. Romances literally happened where one minute a guy is just holding a vase and literally the next second, he’s being kissed by someone that I swore wasn’t even in the room??? The revelations that did happen made no sense, and I can’t even tell you the plot anymore, because I think everything but the fantasy kitchen pot was in this book sink.
This book is only 288 pages. 288 pages for this mess of a team to try and solve the following: the murder of the Queen of the Underneath and the King of the Above (while also explaining the whole world building of this which wasn’t done that well at all since I’m still super confused – where is the above??? where is the under????); stop the sleeping spell that was mentioned a total of like 3 times in the entire story and then promptly forgotten; create 3 romances that I was supposed to feel the angst for; re-create a mage war; babies….lots of babies; insert some feminism; stop the evil mages; and…I DON’T EVEN KNOW. Have some sex on the front lawn because I know that happened?
But, um, ANYWAY, that was a lot to jam pack into 288 pages. The pacing was unbelievably fast. Wayyyyyyyyyyyy too fast. I’m not even joking, I skipped two paragraphs and I missed an entire plot point.
I mean, it seemed like the author had a plan that she wanted to stick to but she kept getting distracted by other good sounding plots and couldn’t figure out how to keep the pacing intact and then everything just was in there and you have got to tell me how one of the main character confesses to murdering important people when he was really being asked about his mystery daughter but we don’t get to hear about the murder after more than two sentences because we have to focus on the mystery daughter???? It felt like we weren’t focusing on what we needed to focus, and any kind of plot just got whipped through to go onto to the next one. What is supposed to be the biggest plot on the back – the sleeping spell – wasn’t even mentionedddddddddddddddd. I didn’t even realize that it was a thing except for the two sentences that were said because we literally had 20 things that had sped through and were going on before it was mentioned again.
Um, let’s just take a quick tally of absurd things that were crammed into this 288 pages:
- Main character’s love interest straight up murders the mc’s surrogate mother/queen and her father figure but is instantly forgiven and then reamed out because he has a secret daughter
- …secret daughter is, like, 11 because love interest is ACTUALLY LIKE 75 YEARS OLD but he looks really young because of unexplained mage magic
- Evil mage women decide to take over the world and head of evil mage women is love interest’s mother who poisons main character, causing her to have a graphic miscarriage for, like, the next five chapters and then promptly “all good” basically (I mean, they’re sad and all but it gets very brushed to the side along with the terrible thing love interest did)
- main character #2 meets love interest #2 and after a day it is in lust at first sight with him, which, you know, happens
- HOWEVER, their first kiss happens when mc 2 runs up from hiding in the basement for totally unexplained reasons, crashes into a vase, is holding onto the vase, and then love interest #2 races up the stairs and kisses him – all happening in two seconds flat with no romantic leadup
- sleeping spell is just an excuse for mc and love interest #1 to have front lawn sex BECAUSE IT IS BARELY MENTIONED EXCEPT LIKE THREE SENTENCES (not the front lawn part because I think there was more sentences on that instead of the sleeping spell)
- the whole ruler of the above kingdom is solved when Momma Pirate literally swoops in out of nowhere
- the entire mage problem is legit solved by the secret daughter who just so happens to whip out this hidden mind reading power that so neatly gave us a reason to hear why the evil people were evil (since they were dunzo dead), and then she just flits around and cures everyone and everything is 100 again
- these were just a few of the wonderful things that I couldn’t totally wrap my mind around
END OF SPOILERS
Ugh, the characters. I didn’t feel an absolute thing for any one of them. Not a single thing. As I said, I liked Gemma in the beginning, and I do have to say that Filak made some great feminism statements in the book. That being said, in the last 80 pages, Gemma and her love interest were literally crying every other page. Just because I’m not a book crier, I don’t judge people on their crying in books, BUT SHE WAS CONSTANTLY CRYING. JUST MORE AND MORE AND MORE CRYING. I felt like she was trying way too hard to be tough girl fantasy queen, and we didn’t get any more characterization besides that.
With Tollan, I mean, I have nothing. I can’t even give you a description of the man except maybe insecure? Frozen? He was the other lead of the story, but I honestly got nothing to give you. I felt like we spent too much time with pointless characters like a woman I call Momma Pirate and the still wonderfully boring and useless Wince. Dev was there, and he was the cause of many of the most absurd moments of the story.
The romance. You have to be there going, at least the romance was shippable, right? Well, there was a ship in this story, and we got a paragraph describing it and it was more intense than the romances. I think Elam and Tollan had the ability to be a very cute, feely couple, but they got bogged down by instalove and no real development besides the sexual attraction they felt after sleeping on some front lawn together (actual sleeping not like the thing I mentioned earlier – wow, front lawns were a thing in this novel).
The writing style was good. I liked the feel that the novel had, and it really was quite easy to read. I mean, I was constantly bug eyed by the absurd things that were happening, but it was just so easy to read. And I mean, I never got bored? I think if Filak just slowed it down and focused on a few plots, this would have been a whole different rating for me. I mean, things were still a little odd, but I still think Filak had promise with her just easy to read style.
There were a lot of elements to this story, and some of them were quite interesting. There were quite too many for me, but I do have to give props to Filak for trying to create something new and different in a fantasy world that is kind of stuck sometimes iwth trying to create something new.
So, yeah, I think I’m going to stop here. It’s a lot. I’m sorry to Filak, because I feel like I really harshed on this book mellow, but it was so not a pleasant read for me. I had so many side-eyed conversations and then full on eyed conversations because it was TOO MUCH. It was just way too much. I think there was so promise in the book, but it got bogged down by weird plot twists, too many things going on, way too fast pacing, surface level characterization, and meh romance. Filak has a good writing style, though, and she did have some creative ideas. It just wasn’t nearly enough for me. 1 crown, and a Merida rating!