REVIEW: From Blood and Ash series by Jennifer L. Armentrout

I initially reviewed From Blood and Ash as a standalone novel before the sequel was released. However, after reading it’s A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire it has somewhat altered my perspective on the series so far. So whilst this is primarily a review of FBAA, I will also discuss AKOFAF towards the end of the review, to explain just why I am so conflicted about this series.

FBaA

From Blood and Ash is a fantasy romance novel. I have for many years tended to steer clear of anything in the explicit romance genre. I have a phobia of bodice rippers and something about them just makes my skin crawl. However, I’ve broadened my reading platform of late and have found that I actually really enjoy a well-written romance! Who knew?

This novel is high fantasy with a solid story line and the romance, while integral to the plot, feels credible and secondary to the story line.

The story follows Poppy, the Maiden of The Kingdom of Solis. As a child Poppy survives the brutal massacre of her parents at the hands of the Craven, a bloodthirsty plague that takes ordinary citizens and turns them into brutal undead killers. Poppy still bears the scars of her brush with death but the Queen of Solis decrees her a gift from the Gods. She is named as the next maiden a title of true prestige and worship. A title that will see Poppy offered to the Gods sometime after her nineteenth birthday in an ascension ceremony that no-one will tell her much about.

Poppy spends her teenage years under the care of the Duke and Duchess Teerman. The Duke is ruthless and loathsome. He beats Poppy for any perceived rule breaking and constantly reminds her of how her scars marr her otherwise perfect face. Her only solace is the time she spends with one of her personal guards, Vikter who teaches her to defend herself – something that is completely forbidden, yet gives Poppy a sense of purpose.

As the maiden Poppy is slowly groomed towards her ascension – the ritual that occurs for every second born child in the kingdom. The details are kept a closely guarded secret, but Poppy knows that once a person ascends they are never the same. Her own brother has not visited since his ascension. And while he writes frequently she cannot get rid of the sense that he is different. After all, the ascended move differently, they are quicker, more powerful, and something about them turns Poppy’s stomach. As the maiden her own ascension will be the biggest event in the land. But the closer it draws near, the more unease Poppy feels.

In fear and confusion Poppy looks for something, anything that will give her life some meaning, or control. She sneaks out of the palace and attends a drinking house, disguised in a mask. No one would recognise her face – the maiden never appears unveiled in public – but Poppy doesn’t want to be found by her father figure Vikter.

At the drinking house Poppy runs into Hawke, a soldier who is new in town. Every woman knows him by his rakish smile and charm. Poppy herself has watched him training below the palace. For the few minutes that they are together Poppy experiences something that she never has and something that is forbidden – a taste of freedom. But when Hawke must leave Poppy sneaks back into the palace where she is once more veiled and caged.

When one of her personal guard is killed and Poppy is attacked in the grounds, the Duke issues her a new personal guard and it comes as a surprise to her when Hawke appears at her side. Unlike the Duke, he does not seem bothered by her scars.

Poppy learns that the Dark One – a being from an ancient land who seek a claim to the throne – is after her. He presumably wants to kill her, as he is rumoured to have killed the first maiden many years ago. But it is Vikter and Hawke’s job to stop him from getting anywhere near Poppy. However as time passes, Poppy begins to realise that the Dark One may have more supporters amongst the people then she had ever realised.

Over time Poppy and Hawke develop a friendship and she comes to trust him with her truths – that she is having doubts about her ascension – then her heart and her body.

But when the Duke is murdered and Poppy suffers a severe loss, she is recalled to the Capital by the Queen. Hawke and the others act as her escort. But there are more deadly things than Craven lurking beyond the walls. And Poppy is about to suffer her biggest loss as she realises that there is much that she does not know about the world, and about the people she has come to trust.

I loved the whole relationship between Hawke and Poppy. He was just the right amount of arrogantly mischievous. And Poppy was kick ass! I loved how she was perceived as this pure, innocent maiden, yet when it came down to it she was a badass with a sword, running around on the battlements.

Poppy’s character arc was great. She starts out blindly following everything she has been told, then her doubts begin to grow and we see her taking control of her situation. Towards the end of the book she starts to understand herself and her position and makes a choice. The ending is ironic in the most heart-breaking way and I don’t want to spoil it, but it really packed an emotional punch.

The author spent a lot of time world building and the beginning of the story shifts at a slow pace. But the descriptions were so intriguing that it was enjoyable and still made you want to read on. I felt like I could so clearly picture the world and where the province of Massadonia fit into Solis. I was so intrigued by the premise of the ascension. Not much was explained about this to start off with, probably because it was such a secret and Poppy herself didn’t know what it was all about. But as details began to unfold it became a really great mystery trying to understand whether it really was something virtuous and godly as Poppy had always been told.

In contrast to the slow start the end of the novel was paced so quickly that there was very little time to process what was happening. There is a huge reveal at the end that leads to a dramatic showdown. But the reader doesn’t get much chance to absorb this as it is almost rushed through and I do wish there had been more time spent on this final section of the book.

I loved this novel, but can acknowledge that it wasn’t perfect. There were things I didn’t like about it.

There were some grammatical errors and anyone who has read my last post on self-published works (HERE) will know that this is a massive pet peeve of mine and can totally put me off a novel before it has begun.

I also found the plot to be somewhat predictable. As soon as the Dark One was mentioned I knew exactly who it was. I think this is down to the fact that I’m pretty good with working out plot twists, but to me it was quite obvious. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story, but the big twist wasn’t as much a big twist as a little curve. But saying that it still held a huge emotional punch.

My last issue with it had to be the language. The author is not one that I was familiar with before this novel. I have seen a lot of reviews gushing over her other work so I went back and re-read a few of her other novels. Jennifer L. Armentrout is an American author who mainly writes romance and from my POV this is by far her best work. Nevertheless, in From Blood and Ash I did find myself getting frustrated with the dialogue at times. The story is set in a mythical kingdom which is very much medieval in nature. Kings and Queens, castles and fighting with swords and bows etc. The language that her characters use, particularly those of higher class is formal, 90% of the time. Yet here and there small Americanisms would creep in that just irritated me. Like the use of the word sure as an affirm. That’s definitely a modern slip of the tongue and just felt out of place. There were a few instances where I felt the same, but really that’s me being very pedantic.

These are small issues in comparison to how much I enjoyed the story, though. I really, really love a good romance. But only when it is done well, and also when it is combined with an excellent story. This is a great fantasy novel with a really unique world and some brilliant characters. The romance that happened here, while integral, served a hirer purpose to further the story line. It wasn’t some teen insta-love thrown in just because the author wanted to tick a box and it wasn’t some gushy, swoontastic I love you sooo much garbage. This is a story of a girl who has been taught all of her life that she is only good for one purpose, who is never allowed to experience anything, and the boy who makes her question her place in the world and the people who seek to use her.

Despite the flaws in the execution this was a really great read for me, just for the pure enjoyment of the story. For me a novel is all about a story and getting lost. I read for escapism and I want to be swept away. And I really was with this novel.

I was therefore wholly excited to read the second novel in the series: A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire. I pre-ordered the kindle edition and read it as soon as it was released, devouring it in a day.

What a disappointment.

It’s the worst feeling to be so excited for a series only to be completely let down by a sequel. And I was so completely let down by the second story in this saga. There were so many things wrong with it that it felt like it was written by a completely different author.

While the first novel had suspense, intrigue and plot twists, this second novel slowed to a snails pace.

For the first 30% of the novel nothing happens. The characters stay in the same place, they hash out the same dramas and the protagonist spends a lot of time thinking. And when I say thinking read: moping about how her life has turned out.

It was just boring. Honestly. I had so many thoughts about what was going to happen in this story none of which came to pass.

There were smidges of action towards the end, but to be truthful by that point it was almost too little too late. I found myself flicking through and skim reading whole sections of dialogue – of which there was just too much.

I love dialogue; it’s great for breaking up exposition and gives you a great insight into a character’s thoughts and personality. But it was totally overdone here. The characters had the same conversations, round and round. They used the same phrases, had the same arguments. And then dialogue was also used to info dump huge amounts of information that were almost too much to take on board. I actually got a headache trying to remember all the names of various kings and gods.

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