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REVIEW: The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas

the-burning-sky-thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas,

Unlike many of the other reviewers here at DA, I’m not familiar with your romance novels. I’ve only read one book from your backlist. But when I saw you were switching to young adult, I decided I would give your work another try. It’s a genre I’m more well-versed in, after all.

Traditional fantasy is still an underutilized subgenre in YA. Or it seems that way, at least, given all the paranormals/UF and dystopians out there. I can see how YA readers would be hungry for more, given the success of Rae Carson’s books. But coming from a traditional fantasy background, I’m picky. The worldbuilding and execution in the books I’ve read often leave me underwhelmed.

The Burning Sky uses many tropes in its construction. There’s nothing wrong with that. Tropes exist for a reason, and I’ll be the first person to admit I specifically seek out books because they use certain tropes. (Friends to lovers, anyone?) But I believe they should be used in moderation. Too many tropes, and the story gets bogged down.

Let’s start from the beginning. The Burning Sky is set in a sort of alternate Britain where there are two parallel dimensions, magic exists in one of them, and the denizens of the magical world can cross over to the nonmagical one. Based on my reading, I saw it more like the parallel worlds of the Black Jewels trilogy rather than Harry Potter.

Magical Britain is under the rule of Atlantis. There’s some longstanding conflict between the two that’s never explained so I can’t tell you what that’s all about. In fact, I can’t really tell you much about Atlantis at all other than they’re oppressing magical Britain. If I sound unimpressed by this, there’s a reason. I belong to that school of readers that considers Atlantis to be lazy, shortcut worldbuilding. If a novel is going to use Atlantis, it needs to do something with the mythos surrounding it. Don’t just drop it in a story and expect it to stand on its own. That’s just as bad as relying on pseudo-medieval-lite settings in your average traditional fantasy novel. (And we all know how I feel about that.)

The female protagonist is Iolanthe Seabourne. She is purported to be the greatest elemental mage of her generation. Yes, she is the chosen special one. The male protagonist is Prince Titus of Elberon. He is the prince who pretends to be an idiot while plotting to free his people from oppressive rule. He sees Iolanthe as the key to accomplishing his goal and intends to use her, even if it means their deaths.

How is Titus so sure about Iolanthe’s role in all this? His mother was a seer, and she left behind a journal full of her visions. You could say it was a prophecy. But he miscalculated. He assumed the key to destroying the Bane of Atlantis was going to be a male elemental mage. Instead, he gets Iolanthe, a girl. What does that mean? It means Iolanthe must disguise herself as a boy! But what’s to keep Iolanthe tied to Titus? After all, he’s a complete stranger expecting her to sacrifice her life for his goal. Why, a magical bond, of course!

And so it goes. My main problem with The Burning Sky can be reduced to this. I can see the tropes as pieces and none of them fit together smoothly. The story never gelled for me and in fact, read very deliberately put together. Maybe I could have forgiven this if the writing wasn’t so dry and unemotional. More emotional writing might have masked the obvious construction better. As a result, I could never sink in because I could see the strings clearly.

It’s not just because I’m not a fan of the “girl pretending to be a boy” trope either. The fact is, the way the trope was used in the novel lacked risk on Iolanthe’s part. The whole point of the trope is that the girl’s true gender can be discovered at any moment. This means any number of threats such as walking in while she’s changing or taking a bath; or her getting an injury that requires medical treatment and therefore, a physical examination. I’m sure readers can think of other examples. It’s a common trope.

But in The Burning Sky, none of these things happen. The main risk to finding out Iolanthe’s true gender? The other students might realize she’s too pretty to be a boy. That’s not a legitimate risk of discovery. That’s just a way to show Titus thinks she’s hot. For the most part, Iolanthe’s crossdressing masquerade goes off without a hitch. This is even taking into account Titus’s magical interference. Things that should be a problem are not. For example, she knows nothing about cricket but she still manages to be an ace player. Amazing athletic ability does not translate to team sport playing genius. I love strong female characters, but the way to show their competence is by putting them under pressure and showing how they excell under duress, not by making things easy for them.

The burgeoning relationship between Iolanthe and Titus is rife with problems. As readers can guess, the two are attracted to each other. After all, we’ve covered all the other tropes. Why not this one too? But their relationship starts off massively imbalanced, in favor of Titus. He controls the information Iolanthe gets and manipulates things so that she has no options but to stick with him. The fact that Iolanthe falls in love with him despite that didn’t sit well with me. In addition, we’re also supposed to be okay with Titus falling in love with her while treating her horribly and controlling her life. That does not speak well of him at all. Power differentials are tricky to portray in romantic relationships, and the execution here didn’t work for me. I was actively repulsed by their dynamic.

Given how many people are fans of your work, I suspect this is a case of me simply not connecting to your writing. I have no objections to the use of tropes in a story, even a lot of them, but at this point, I prefer more subversion when they’re used. When they’re played straight, I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me and that’s just too big a hurdle for me to climb. C-

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

13 Comments

  1. AnimeJune
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 12:23:07

    I had pretty much the exact same reaction to this book. There are so many tropes, but none of them are given appropriate stakes or context. I rolled my eyes so hard at the fact that the heroine – who’s lived an impoverished, female lifestyle for her entire life – can SOMEHOW flawlessly impersonate an upperclass boy at an exclusive all-boy’s boarding school, a restrictive, hormonally-charged environment in which everyone falls under intense scrutiny.

    And she’s miraculously good at cricket. And she literally calls lightning by just pointing her finger at the sky and shouting “lightning!” REALLY?

    As someone who, like you, reads a lot of epic fantasy, I was also really irritated by how the magic system was this poorly-developed catch-all solution to everything, with no barriers or limitations imposed upon it whatsoever. Whenever there’s a problem, Titus or Iolanthe remember a surprise spell or heretofore unknown magical object that solves that exact problem. I snickered at the oh-so-convenient Dead Mother Diary That Only Shows You Exactly the Prophesy You Need At This Exact Moment.

    Sherry Thomas’ romances are divine and hugely emotional – which really surprised me when, like you, I found the writing style in BURNING SKY to be really detached. Perhaps she was actively trying to distance herself from her previous writing style because she was trying out another genre.

  2. Jia
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 12:43:06

    @AnimeJune: There’s a lot of handwaving SOMEHOW going on in the book, isn’t it? I always explain to people that you’re only really allowed 1-2, maaaaybe 3, “gimmes” in a book. “Gimmes” being that thing that you’ll accept on faith, even if it’s ridiculous. In fantasy, it’s the existence of magic. But you’re exactly right — having magic doesn’t mean having no rules. In fact, it means there must be rules because the existence of magic itself is such a huge “gimme”, suspension of disbelief is already in play.

    The worldbuilding, the magic system included in that, left a lot to be desired. I wish there’d been more done with the two supposed magical styles. At the beginning of the novel, I thought we’d be exploring more about the friction between elemental mages like Iolanthe and the more subtle magics wielded by people like Titus. Especially since it was implied that the two styles were mapping onto a sort of class divide with one being viewed as primitive and backwards while the other was viewed as “advanced.” But no.

  3. hapax
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 18:04:18

    Hmm. I had a totally different reaction to this one.

    Thomas’s historical romances generally don’t work for me; the writing is beautiful, but I find them too overwrought and angsty to be pleasant reading.

    But this one totally caught me. Yes, it is trope-heavy, but it also goes to some effort to subvert the tropes: Iolanthe might be the Super Speshul Chosen One, but she is also cranky and bitchy and not at all inclined to cooperate — not to mention the rather big subversion that SPOILER:

    Buried Comment: Show

    she completely FAILS in her attempts against the Big Bad.

    I thought that it was pretty clear that this “Atlantis” wasn’t the “classical” Atlantis, but deliberately chose the name to evoke all those associations. I rather liked that it was the hero, rather than the heroine, who was all angsty and emotional and insecure (because of Reasons). I very much liked the Magical Mentor father figure who turned out to be a failure and a cheat and a drug addict, and it was all Iolanthe’s fault. And I definitely liked the supporting cast who all had agendas and agency of their own, instead of being props for the main characters’ issues — like the student who was interested in Indian independence and the glamorous femme fatale who was neither as villainous as painted nor secretly One of the Good Guys but had her own legitimate motivations.

    And what you all considered hand-wavey worldbuilding I found fascinating. As much as I like epic fantasy, I get weary of the detailed lectures on How It All Works, usually involving appendices and diagrams and charts (I’m looking at you, Brandon Sanderson). I didn’t find the magic used excessively “convenient”, any more than I would find a police officer in a thriller suddenly pulling a gun on the criminal “convenient”, even if he hadn’t set it up with a detailed explanation four chapters earlier describing the manufacture of his weapon, showing his skill on the shooting range, and outlining the system of an induced chemical explosion propelling a metal slug at high speeds.

    In fact, I really *loved* that the book had at least four different magical systems, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and we had to figure out how they worked by seeing them in action. I loved that the two parallel worlds were actually quite different, not just in magic vs technology, but in politics, economy, social structures, even food and dress and *smells*.

    In short, I thought this one was a terrific story, both a great deal of fun to race through reading, and even more fun to speculate about weeks after reading it.

    But isn’t it a grand thing that different people have such different experiences reading the same book?

  4. hapax
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 18:18:30

    Oh crumbs, I screwed up on the SPOILER tag on that comment, and the system won’t let me in to edit it. Can someone fix it for me?

  5. Jia
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 18:53:46

    @hapax: There, I think that should work. I unfortunately couldn’t remember the part of the tag that lets you give a reason for hiding the comment but hopefully it’s clear it’s because of the spoiler.

  6. Jia
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 19:01:18

    @hapax:

    Iolanthe might be the Super Speshul Chosen One, but she is also cranky and bitchy and not at all inclined to cooperate

    I guess for me this wasn’t enough of a subversion because I’ve read plenty of stories where the Special Chosen One is reluctant, has a bad attitude and just wants to run away from it all. So this actually ended up being a straight rendition of the trope, up until the SPOILER, which by that point, I just didn’t care.

    It’s interesting to me that AnimeJune likes her romances but didn’t like this one while the romances don’t work for you but you did like this one. I just assumed my dislike was a mismatch in reader to author (since I was ambivalent about the one romance I did read and was unimpressed with this one) but maybe AnimeJune is onto something and there was a deliberate separation between the two genres?

  7. Andrea
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 21:28:25

    I love some of Sherry Thomas’ romances, and I hoped this one would be good, but I have to admit that I had some misgivings when I read the excerpt on her website a few months ago. Her depiction of the magic seemed rather vague and weak to me, so I’m not surprised, but still a little disappointed, that it sounds like that holds true for the rest of the book. Thanks for the review. I might check it out if the library has a copy but probably won’t rush out to buy it.

  8. Angie
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 22:26:05

    I’m sorry it didn’t work for you, Jia. I wasn’t sure which way the wind would blow going in, as I’ve enjoyed a couple of Thomas’ historicals and been completely underwhelmed by a couple others. But I wound up just really loving this one. I found it whimsical and charming and I was a fan of the many different directions these two characters were being pulled in. I also appreciated the fact that at times I hated Titus and at times I hoped for him, just as I felt like kicking Iolanthe into gear at times, while at others I rooted for her so strongly. I’m interested to see where the next book takes them.

  9. CD
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 23:43:17

    @hapax:

    As someone who loves Brandon Sanderson and Sherry Thomas’ romances, I get the impression that maybe I should skip this one…

    To be honest, I haven’t really had good experiences with romance novelists trying to switch to fantasy – as a huge fantasy lover, I generally tend to find that their worldbuilding and plotting just doesn’t make sense. And yes, The Cranky Chosen One Who Refuses The Call is a well-worn trope by now: frankly, I’d be more surprised to read a fantasy where The Chosen One gives us a “Hell, yeah!” – I think the last one was THE LORD OF THE RINGS…

    However, just noticed that this is a YA so it might get a pass on that. Generally YA fantasy tends to be light on logic and high on handwaves and Reasons. And that’s fine: not all fantasy has to be “realistic” – if that makes sense. Mercedes Lackey is one very prolific fantasy writer whose YA books show an abysmal lack of logic and heavy reliance on tropes – basically, it’s all about the cute magical talking horses… I ate them up as a child/early teen but even then, I knew it was complete nonsense.

  10. Anthea Lawson/Sharp
    Sep 23, 2013 @ 00:36:49

    Hm, I hope this one works for me. I generally love Sherry’s writing, so I’m optimistic.

    I’m curious about the cover – Amazon US shows a flaming bird over a city, which give a very different feel. I like the cover you’ve got here – the duality is made clearer.

  11. Jia
    Sep 23, 2013 @ 06:10:20

    @CD: Ah, the Valdemar series! I ate those up as a teen. Loved them and even though I know they’re ridiculous, I still think of the telepathic white horses fondly. But it’s more of a nostalgia looking back thing. I tried to read a couple of the new ones she wrote a few years back and that was a disaster. Some things fare better in your memory, LOL.

  12. Jia
    Sep 23, 2013 @ 06:11:38

    @Anthea Lawson/Sharp: Oh. Huh. I wonder if they switched covers and I completely missed it. The cover posted with the review is the one on my ARC but maybe it changed in the final version? I admit I’m not really a fan of either.

  13. Kim
    Sep 23, 2013 @ 11:20:42

    The cover did change after the ARC’s were produced. Sherry Thomas explained that “Harper reconsidered the cover and decided that they wanted an approach that more strongly evoked the epic fantasy-adventure feel of the story.” Both covers had the same artist.

    @Jia: I didn’t mind the power differential in Iolanthe and Titus’ relationship. It’s true, that in the beginning, Iolanthe is just a means to an end, but they didn’t know each other. Titus kept secrets, but they didn’t have a foundation of trust at that point. So your use of the word repulsed jumped out of the review for me. The word is so much stronger than mere dislike. I’m not even sure that Titus did love her at that point. Their mutual feelings were conflicted for much of the book.

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