I have likely never been as excited to be approved for an ARC as I was for this one. Not that that should come as a surprise, since it’s billed as a mix of Wonder Woman and Vikings, so pretty much fierce fighting females, which is directly up my alley. Plus, this also seemed like the unicorn of YA books: an awesome fantasy standalone. I have a soft spot for those, for lots of personal reasons that I won’t get all into here (though don’t get me wrong, I love series too). And what a gorgeous cover and title! But anyways, without further ado, here’s my review for this savage debut.
“Ond Eldr. Breathe Fire.”
Eelyn, like every Aska clansman, is raised a warrior from childhood, in preparation to fight in the ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Pain and death are a normal part of her life, but everything changes when she sees her brother on the battlefield…fighting with the Riki…after she had watched him die five years earlier. Without giving too much detail (no spoilers!), Eelyn ends up in her brother’s Riki village for the winter, struggling to come to terms with her brother’s betrayal and the breaking down of the barriers she always had between her own people and the Riki. When a ruthless clan attacks the village, the same clan that years ago took her own mother’s life, things kick into high gear. Between that and her burgeoning relationships with her brother’s adoptive family, and particularly his ‘brother’ Fiske, Eelyn faces her greatest battle yet: attempting to unite the Aska and Riki or face distinction in the face of this new enemy.
There are so many things to love about this book. First, it’s ruthless. No punches are pulled in the gore and death that Eelyn sees every day (though rest assured, it is definitely not quite to a Game of Thrones level) and I appreciate that “reality” being fully acknowledged, within the boundaries of this storyline. The old school Nordic/Viking feeling is rock solid – I love it. In fact, I actually question, genre-wise, whether this is really a fantasy at all. I can see why it would be called that, it has that feel to it, but it is, in reality, more historical fiction than anything else. Not that that matters, really. I loved the atmosphere of the book either way – the bleak, cold and wild feel was written to perfection. And the thawing over time, of Eelyn’s heart, of the enmity between the clans, and even of the weather, with the emergence of spring on the other side of winter, is thematically solid and smoothly developed. To expand on that just a little, the slow burn romance was the perfect style for this story, and was well executed – I really did ship Eelyn and Fiske.
As expected/hoped, I got my awesome lady power. It was everything I wanted. Plus, the added and unexpected bonus of great emotional allowance. In fact, I thought it was awesome how natural it was for all the women to be fighters…it’s not like Eelyn was special because she could fight. And in turn that made her emotional development all the better. She was so fully developed: she was written to be strong, but also, when faced with her brothers “return from the dead” and the upheaval of things she’d believed her entire life, she was realistically upset and confused and angry and just generally super emotional. I SO appreciate this portrayal…that being strong and fierce does not mean that you are unemotional or coldhearted. Lovely. Plus, along with that, I felt that the emotional turmoil back and forth was written realistically; meaning I liked not just that it was present, but the way it was composed. Worth mentioning also, for me, is that I thought the themes of family and home, and what makes or defines that, as well as the difficulties in forgiveness, were nicely explored here. And finally, the standalone aspect: I think the author nailed it. First, it’s refreshing for this genre, and second, it is capably accomplished. I was left wanting a little more (always better leave us wanting more than to be overdo it), but with a fully realized and wrapped up ending – the perfect combination and a great emotional ride.
Now, for all that good, there was a little left slightly missing for me. It wasn’t much, and I cannot put my finger on it necessarily, but somewhere, the depth of feeling or development that would have made this a 5 star read just wasn’t there. However, I say that mostly as a cover my own ass sort of thing. I want to make sure it’s out there, that I’m not recommending this as one of my fav books of all time (because there was so much good to say that I think without this caveat my review would make it look like that). But that’s all it is, that feeling that some small spark was not fully there. Because otherwise, this is an upcoming release that you should keep your eye out for – a ferocious ride that I definitely recommend.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, St. Martin’s Press and Wednesday Books, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.