by Crystal Smith
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received a paperback ARC of this title directly from the author, whom I followed on Twitter even before I knew she was a writer. She and I share an enthusiasm for Syfy's 12 Monkeys, for which she produced some remarkable fan art. When I found out she had written a novel I requested it from Net Galley, but they wasted no time turning me down, and then Edelweiss, where it still languishes in the pending file. A tweet about that prompted her to offer the ARC. I realize I'm not in the target demo for this book. I'm a 68-year-old man partial to SF or urban fantasy, this is a YA epic fantasy with a 17-year-old woman protagonist. While I know it's not possible, I did try reading it from that perspective. All of that is in preface to say I hope my reaction to it was not influenced by any of those factors. I rated it 4 stars on Goodreads, although a more accurate score would be around 3.75.
The title refers to a plant which has magical restorative properties, which was created through a previous magic ritual. The events take place in the kingdoms of Renalt and Achleva, which if I read correctly had previously been part of the same country, but were separated due to the rivalry between three royal siblings some 500 years previously. The city/country of Achleva was created through magic which enclosed it within a huge, triangular wall, the magic also ensuring passage through any of its gates, or over the wall, was prohibited unless authorized by Achlevan royalty. The main character is Princess Aurelia of Renalt, who lives with her mother the queen-regent, and her younger brother Conrad, the future king. Her father died a few years before the main action. In infancy, Aurelia was betrothed to Prince Valentin of Achleva, whom she has never met, and only occasionally corresponded with. She has allowed her friend Lisette to carry on the correspondence, since she's not interested in the royal life, in either country. Instead, she practices her magic in secret, since the Tribunal forbids it, frequently hanging those declared to be witches. The power of the Tribunal had increased since the king's death, with at least one of its leaders not averse to using magic themselves to further their agenda.
Being a debut novel there are a few weak spots, primarily in the beginning, but it doesn't take long for the plot and character development to solidify. Aurelia is naive about some things, remarkably mature about others. She sometimes has self-doubts, not ashamed of her magic but remorseful that it has estranged her from others, including her brother. She makes mistakes, but owns up to them, but is still surprised when others seem to have a higher opinion of her than she does herself. She's not interested in power, but not indifferent to her privilege. Her father taught her that a noble monarch serves the people rather than the other way around. Contrast that with how King Domhnall of Achleva views things in the opposite way. He loves his power, loves being protected by the Wall. He's selfish, a libertine and a liar, but considers himself a stable genius. That's not the only nod to current events. Aurelia tells another that to support the king is to ignore the suffering of the general population, so the only alternative is to resist. I won't detail much of the plot, the how or why of Aurelia ending up inside the Achlevan wall, the how or why of Lisette being the one who is presented to King Domhnall and Prince Valentin as the betrothed Princess Aurelia. A few events are telegraphed ahead of time, several others are surprises, including the true identity of two of the characters. At first I was upset by the death of my favorite character, even though I realize that event had been foretold in previous clues. It meant Aurelia had to persevere without the influence of a very strong ally, but their memory will remain with her. Even when she acknowledges that "the strongest magic requires the greatest sacrifice," she realizes it's not just the one performing the magic that has to sacrifice.
This is the first book in a trilogy, but its conclusion is not a huge cliffhanger, so I'm not sure what the future holds. A major foe has been defeated (permanently I hope), but another might be held at bay only temporarily, dependent on other dark magic to bring it to the fore. The power of the bloodleaf seems to be more than just one of healing or the restoration of life. It's likely the source of Aurelia's magic, and if that is the case, another child may grow up to wield similar, if not greater, powers. The walls around Achleva have fallen, the city lies in ruins. Will it be rebuilt or abandoned? Will Aurelia find happiness with Zan? Will Conrad be a noble king? I'm anxious to find out in the second book. Recommended, primarily for fans of epic fantasy, YA or not. To be published March 12, Bloodleaf can be pre-ordered now.
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