Hello friends and welcome back to yet another edition of Your Mileage May Vary, my actually-finished book review series. This week I’ll be getting into From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout.
First things first: I hated this book. I also haven’t had a chance to sleep on it before diving into this review (my feelings were so strong I had to immediately vent my spleen, despite it being 1 in the morning) and as such everything is still really fresh. So, if you’re a fan, no hard feelings if you choose to back out now. Ye be warned.
Wow. Wow. Where do I begin?
The main character, Poppy (short for Penellephe), is absolutely insufferable. She has too many skills, she’s special in a thousand different ways, and the only flaw she has — being dumber than a sack of hammers — never actually results in any consequences, and we are often told in the text that she is actually really smart!!!! BESIDES ALL THE EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY.
Okay, specifics. She’s The Maiden, a special individual chosen by the gods to… I don’t know, assist in several of her countrymen Ascend into demigod like beings upon reaching her 19th (and imminent) birthday. I think. Whatever. (What The Maiden is supposed to do and what she symbolizes for her people turns out to be irrelevant. It’s the specter of that event that matters.) Anyway point is, The Maiden, Poppy, is supposed to remain pure and untainted by literally anything and so she’s kept up in an ivory tower that she routinely escapes to do decidedly un-Maiden like things. Things like visit bars, speak to literally anyone, have intimate relations, be seen in public without a face covering, learn martial arts, read sexy books from the library, participate in underground mercy killings that are inexplicably treasonous? Fine.
She also has A Gift to supernaturally sense other people’s pain (physical and mental) and, if she chooses, ease it. Later this is expanded to include all kinds of emotions for no apparent reason. Fine.
She’s also had extensive (and forbidden) weapons training which means she’s a crack shot with a bow and wicked with the dagger that she never leaves home without. Is that not enough? We can’t forget that she’s also THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CREATURE ON EARTH except for the facial scars she sustained as a child when her family was attacked by werewolf like creatures. Which she frequently has nightmares about 13 years later. She’s also immune to werewolf bites. Because of course she is. Fine.
Okay, I think that’s everything. Now we can really get cooking.
Yall. Yall. The book opens with Poppy, in first person narration, basically admitting to herself that she’s doing something incredibly reckless and dangerous with little actual purpose other than it helps her feel alive. At first, I dug this motivation. It immediately humanized her at a time when the info dumping about her role as The Maiden (and her Gift) was kind of disorienting. But it rapidly became clear that this first chapter was a nice summation of her entire character. There isn’t a single beat in the entire book when she’s not doing something fucking dumb as hell, for no other reason than because… ??? She just wants to????
But I mean. Okay. Fine. Her cloistered life has given her a rebellious and reckless personality. Fine. Being sequestered physically, socially, and emotionally from almost everyone in the world save a select few has got to be traumatic, and she’s acting out the only way she knows how. Fine. That in and of itself wouldn’t be an issue for me, IF her actions had any actual consequences at all. But they don’t. Yes, bad things happen around and even to her, but they never directly arise from her own (stupid) choices. Which leads to this awful dissonance. No, she doesn’t have agency because her body is tightly controlled by the government and religious entities around her. But she creates her own agency by constantly flouting their rules in secret. But, she doesn’t have any narrative agency after all, because nothing she does has any effect on the plot. Nothing. I mean it. Nothing. Even the one time she mouths off to someone she shouldn’t and is punished for it, Armentrout has already spent 100 pages alluding to how capricious and cruel this punishment would be. It isn’t actually Poppy’s fault, you see; her tormentor would have just made up a reason to hurt her even if she didn’t give him one. And so none her acts of defiance, large or small, have any bearing on the course of her life. Or the plot.
In fact, most of what Poppy does, from a structural standpoint, seems to be entirely contrived to throw her in the way of her love interest, Hawke Flynn and oh my god could you have conceived of a worse name than that? Anyway, Hawke is beautiful and infuriating. He never takes anything Poppy says seriously and seems dead set on seducing her (extraneous spoiler alert: he succeeds). He always seems to catch her in the act of doing something The Maiden definitely shouldn’t be doing, and is content to encourage the behavior. He finds her beautiful in spite of her scars (omg puke) and I think the only reason he like-likes her is because she’s a good fighter? I mean, seriously.
Of course, it’s revealed at the end that Hawke is not just your run of the mill guard who happened to get assigned to her protective detail, he’s actually the prince of the vampires who has been responsible for all the bad wrong going on in the plot. And despite it being unforgivably obvious, Poppy still doesn’t know this until he betrayed her, kidnapped her, re-seduced and bedded her in some weird vampirey bloodlust sexcapade which… sigh.
(Honestly, and this is 100% true, I only stayed with this book because I wanted to see that poor, sexually repressed girl get hers.)
I am a fantasy writer because I like reading fantasy. I can’t remember how I came across this book, but it was definitely sold to me as a fantasy. However, this was not fantasy. This was a romance. A vampire romance. A vampire romance dressed up like a fantasy and I’m so mad I didn’t know that before I read it.
Last, super nitpicky thing: there are way too many words in this book. I skimmed a lot, even before I got fed up with it (around the 70% point). A direct example:
I stepped forward, stopping short as I glanced down. Something was behind the leg of one of the chairs. Bending down, I reached under the chair and picked up the object. My head tilted as I ran a thumb over the smooth, soft white surface.
It was… a petal.
Suffice it to say I would have written this paragraph in a totally different way, but the bolded sentence actually sent me to bed the other night when I was reading. It was just… so unnecessary. You don’t need to spend an entire sentence telling us she picked up something off the floor. Tell us it is in her hand, and we will connect the dots.
Again, this is petty as fuck, but it just felt like a microcosm of the way the plot (and worldbuilding) was spoonfed to us, as if we are children who wouldn’t understand if the details weren’t explicitly spelled out for us.
Phew. It’s been a while since I felt that virulently annoyed by a book I also refused to put down. Honestly, toward the end the only thing keeping me going was because I just didn’t want to admit defeat.
Anyway, sorry for the rant (and the swears). Unless you’re into a good diatribe, in which case: you’re welcome. I’ll be back on Thursday for a pre-NaNoWriMo check in. Until then, may your writing be plenty and your struggles be few.