The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas
Series: The Elemental Trilogy, #1
Published: 2013, Balzer + Bray
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
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There existed something in this world that bound a mage tighter than a blood oath: love. Love was the ultimate chain, the ultimate whip, and the ultimate slave driver.
The prologue of The Burning Sky begins with a promise:
This is the story of a girl who fooled a thousand boys, a boy who fooled an entire country, a partnership that would change the fate of realms, and a power to challenge the greatest tyrant the world had ever known.
Quite a lofty promise made, no? But the better question here is whether the novel delivers on its promises. After concluding this book, I do think so, though with a few reservations.
Iolanthe Seaborne is a considerably talented elemental mage able to control three of the four elements, however she is alive in a time when the influence of elemental mages is receding. Instead, people are becoming more reliant on subtle magic and technological progress. Still, Iolanthe’s powers are desirable enough that she’s been asked to light the path at a local wedding and has created a light elixir for the ceremony.
She agreed to perform at the ceremony for her sake, to better her education and chances for a good career, and for the sake of her guardian, Master Haywood. For the past number of years, Iolanthe has convinced the various schools that he’s taught at (as well as their surrounding communities) that Master Haywood is still competent, that his brain hasn’t been addled by his drug addiction. It is with considerable consternation, therefore, that Iolanthe learns that her guardian does not want her to perform at the ceremony. Not only that, but he goes so far as to destroy Iolanthe’s light elixir to ensure she will not attend the ceremony.
With too much at stake, Iolanthe researches ways to fix ruined elixirs and finds out they can be fixed if struck by a lightning bolt. By summoning that lightning bolt, however, Iolanthe finds her life forever changed as she flees from the imperialistic Atlantis, joins forces with the prince of Dominion, and learns of a prophecy involving the supposed greatest elemental mage of their time: herself.
By far the best aspect of The Burning Sky is the characterization of its protagonists, Iolanthe and Titus. Titus is the prince and Master of Domain, the magical world somehow connected to our own. Although he’s Domain’s ostensible leader, the agents of Atlantis have made him into little more than a puppet; he doesn’t quite have the power to protect his own people from the encroaching power of Atlantis. Ever since his mother died when he was young, Titus has outwardly given deference to Atlantis, allowing them to think of him as pompous, conceited, and ill fit to lead his people. But the public persona that Titus presents is little more than a facade, albeit a necessary one, as he waits for the event his mother prophesied to occur: the day that he meets the great elemental mage who will help him overthrow Atlantis. Although his many personas make it difficult for others to see his true thoughts, Thomas does a good job of making his true character fairly clear to readers.
Compared to Titus, Iolanthe felt a bit more like an enigma. Although a solid half the story is told from her perspective, I had a difficult time understanding her initially. Part of that is certainly due to the fact that Iolanthe spends a large portion of the novel as Archer Fairfax, fellow Eton schoolboy and best friend of Titus. I got to know Archer fairly well--well enough that at times I felt as though Iolanthe herself was overshadowed by her public persona (ironic, perhaps, in light of how I felt about Titus and his multiple personas).
While I did not connect with Iolanthe as quickly as I did with Titus, I came to appreciate her character more and more as the story continued. For the supposed hope of the entire Domain, Iolanthe is both flawed and vulnerable. She’s scared of what the prophecy entails, but in the end is willing to do what it takes for the good of others. In other words, by the end of the book she has become a character I could really empathize with.
Thomas spends quite a lot of the book’s focus and narration on developing Titus and Iolanthe individually. The same care and effort is also then put into their relationship with one another. After an initial curiosity with one another, Titus and Iolanthe spend a large percentage of the book in various stages of dislike and only gradually come to trust one another. One of the reasons I tend to dislike most YA romances is that they feel disingenuous. Two characters are forced into certain situations together and readers just know they’ll end up together. Even though that is true to some degree here, Titus and Iolanthe’s relationship is founded on more than good looks, but on shared ideals and genuine respect for one another (eventually). The development of their relationship felt refreshingly realistic to me.
The worldbuilding is not bad necessarily, but neither is it great. The story takes place in two main places, the Domain (the realm where mages and magic live) and the human world, in a late nineteenth-century England. Thomas does not spend too much time developing historical England, which is fine as the book’s focus is more on the fantastical and the magical. Unfortunately, I was not quite satisfied with the depiction of the Domain either. There is no map to guide readers, and neither is there any sort of explanation of how the “real” world and the “magical” world are connected. While I understood that Atlantis is kind of like this imperialistic/colonial country within the magical realm, I cannot exactly put my finger on its relationship with the Domain. Inhabitants of the Domain/Atlantis possess various magic powers: they can vault (essentially teleport), they coexist with various other magical beings, and some can harness the powers of the elements. None of the features of this world were explained to the degree they could have been, but I am fine with that. I read fantasy a lot and am used to suspending disbelief. If you’re going to attempt to intermix a magical world with our own, however, I need more explanation than what those few footnotes provided.
The Burning Sky is also not as action-oriented as I assumed it would be. This is not a bad thing, but not what I was expecting with a prologue promising rebellion and justice and challenges to tyrants. The last quarter or so of the book is fairly action-packed, but until then Titus and Iolanthe spend a lot of time at Eton acting as normal students during the day and practicing magic by night. There were instances when I felt as though the plot had stalled, but upon reflection I do think the pacing definitely contributed to a better, more fuller understanding of Titus and Iolanthe’s characterizations.
I realize that I’ve given this story a fairly high rating, but I am nonetheless left feeling a bit disappointed. I guess that’s just what happens when you have sky-high expectations of something. The Burning Sky is not a bad book, but I did spend a bit of time forced to pause due to some unusually vague aspects of worldbuilding and lulls in the plot. Still, though, Thomas certainly knows how to write her characters and relationships and I remain fascinated by the overarching storyline. I’ve read my fair share of fantasies that start with a stumble only to become better and better as the series continues. I am hopeful that will be the case here.
Rating: 4 stars