From Blood and Ash (Blood And Ash, #1) by Jennifer L. Armentrout

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“From this moment until the last moment, I am yours.”

At the end of 2020, I kept seeing this book all over book social media and it was being loved by such a vast range of bookish friends. And then it was the goodreads choice awards 2020 best romance winner! Up until this point, I had never really read anything by Jennifer L. Armentrout, but my curiosity was so very peaked! Then once I entered 2021, I still felt like I could not escape the hype of this series! Finally, I read a few reviews by friends and found out that this was a fantasy series,, with a paranormal romance, and that information, in addition to it feeling like higher powers were at work to get me to read this, made me finally give it a try. And one I read that first chapter I knew I couldn’t put this down.

From Blood and Ash introduces us to Poppy, who is a chosen maiden for the gods. She is not meant to be touched, to be looked at, or to experience anything that is not considered god-like. She is quickly approaching her nineteenth birthday and soon she will leave to the capitol and have her Ascension, where she will prove that she is worthy of the gods and will help protect her entire kingdom from a curse carried by those who are unworthy of the gods. Yet, there is another kingdom living in hiding, who will do anything to make sure Poppy isn’t able to make her Ascension and change anything. (I am trying to be kind of vague here, because I truly did not know before going in, or expect in my wildest dreams, the paranormal aspects of this book, and I believe it did heighten my reading experience!)

But Poppy has so many secrets, including her own kind of powers that are manifesting stronger and stronger to help read and sooth people’s emotions. And there is also the secret of what happened to Poppy’s family, that left her and her brother the only ones alive to carry out the will of the gods, while Poppy is also forced to carry so many scars, both physical and emotional, from that night.. And there are secrets in the palace where she is currently living with the Duke and Duchess and a lot of abuse going on behind closed doors that are only meant to protect her. But the weight of grief and expectations are getting too heavy for Poppy to bear, so at the start of this first book she decides to sneak away from the palace for one night where she can maybe experience things without being expected to be a pure vessel for only the god’s consumption. And when Poppy ends up at a tavern, and in a private room, with Hawke, a very young but very skilled guard, she gets a taste of what she has been missing and what she may want for herself, unapologetically.

“You’re a perfectly normal girl. What is expected of you is what’s bad”

I do think grief and abuse are a constant theme in this story, and we get to see how those two words can present themselves in so many different ways. Different fear tactics are constantly in play, both in this kingdom and in Poppy’s life, to keep people in check and to keep them abiding to a corrupt system. Serving evil can easily be masked by saying it is serving the gods. Ultimately, this is a swoon-worthy and angst-inducing paranormal romance story, but there are a few layers here that I hope people are looking and listening very closely to while reading!

“You deserve so much more than what awaits you”

This book has really good discussions about what it means to be a young person discovering your wants and needs, while also slowly growing into the person you want to be and how hard that can be to separate from expectations already placed on you. This book is very sex positive, and consent is always at the forefront. I am also just going to type this with my full chest and then pretend I didn’t but, for me and my body and my personal experiences, I thought that the building of orgasms (and just some body reactions in general) in this book were very realistic and very well done. But anyways, I loved seeing Poppy reclaim so many things, and this romance is the first one in what felt like years that I am trying completely head of heels in love with and rooting for. But, please allow me this one small mini drag for those of you who have read this book:

Overall, this book truly blew me and my expectations away and it was very much the perfect book for the perfect time in my reading life. I laughed, I smiled, I swooned, I cried, I gasped, this book truly made me feel so much and it was just an amazing journey throughout. I feel like the twists were very well done and laid, I feel like the romance was filled with yearning and angst on every page, and I was constantly left wanting more and more. And the last line of this book? Yeah, I will be picking up A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire immediately. This was a joy to read from cover to cover.

Content and Trigger Warnings: death, gore, talk of loss of a child, talk of kidnapping, talk of death of children, mention of loss of a child in past, loss of a loved one, mention of suicide, assault, physical abuse, blood depictions, mention of rape, anxiety depictions, self-harm to get blood, and general war themes.

4
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The Queen and the Cure (The Bird and the Sword Chronicles, #2) by Amy Harmon

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1.) The Bird and the Sword ★★★★

“I fell in love with you in pieces. Layer by layer, day by day, inch by inch.”

I loved The Bird and the Sword so much when I read it, so I was looking so forward to the indirect sequel, the Queen and the Cure. But, sadly, I was so let down by this next installment. I didn’t care about the character, the story, or any of the hardships that they were going through. Honestly? The only parts I really liked where when the characters from The Bird and the Sword made brief cameos.

Kjell is the captain of Tiras‘s guard, and is on a mission to find any remaining Volgar. Not only is Kjell a strong warrior and leader, he is also a very gifted healer. But his healing comes at a price; for every life he saves, he gives up a day of his own life. But he stumbles upon a young woman named Sasha who is in desperate need of healing, and he doesn’t even hesitate to save her life.

Sasha appears to be a slave, and as compensation for saving her life, Kjell agrees to let her come on this mission with him and his men. But this is obviously a romance book, so angst ensues! Especially since people in the story might not know the extent of their pasts that others have tried to keep hidden.

But the actions that Kjell and Sasha make throughout this story are just infuriating. They really wanted to make things so much harder on themselves, and not in the good angsty way, but in the annoying and unbelievable way. And this happened over and over, constantly, throughout the entire story and it really made it hard to enjoy and even read. And how this book had to end? Lord, the payoff didn’t even feel good.

Overall, I am so sad that this ended up being a disappointment. Hell, maybe I just overhyped it for myself. I’m always on the lookout for fantasy romances, and I put so much damn faith in this, especially after loving The Bird and the Sword so much.

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Content and trigger warnings for slavery, war themes, talk of past animal cruelty, and animal deaths.

 

Phoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire, #1) by Grace Draven

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ARC provided by Berkley in exchange for an honest review.

“Witch-fire the villagers named it. An ancient magic woven into the flesh and fabric of a single girl child born each generation in Beroe. No one knew from whence it originated or why only one woman from every generation in a small village inherited it, but the village elders had kept its secret close and had deceived the Empire for decades.”

When Berkley offered me this, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the author wrote a book that many of my friends love, Radiance, but that’s honestly all I really knew. But friends, I was completely enthralled and captivated by this from page one. I never wanted to put this down, I fell so in love with the romance in this book, and this is one of my new favorite fantasy romances of all time. And I immediately added , Radiance to my TBR!

I will say that the world in this book is very dark, so please use caution while reading. Content and trigger warnings for rape (brief, but at the very start of the book), attempted rape, threats of rape, assault, slavery, captivity, death, murder, torture, gore, violence, sacrificial ritual, blood depiction, self-harm, misogynistic comments, sexual content and war themes.

“Be still. Be silent. Some lust for beauty, others for fear. Don’t show them yours.”

But in this world, every year the surrounding villages are forced to give the empire girls to be given to the gladiators for the night, to only be burned at a pyre come morning. And if a village refuses to give up a girl, they will be made an example of. The empire is the farthest thing from forgiving, and both our main characters witness this first hand.

Gilene – Fire witch who has been the sacrificial girl for her village for the last four years, using her magic to disguises herself as a new girl. Even though she has to endure the torture of the night, she is able to walk free from the fire every year, without anyone noticing. Well, she didn’t think anyone could notice.

“Surely, he couldn’t recognize her. She’d returned to the capital time and again with a different face. Her skills with illusion were as refined as they were with fire. The slavers never knew they brought the same woman from Beroe to Kraelag year after year.”

Azarion – The prime gladiator of the empire for the last ten years. He is a slave, and forced to fight in the arena, yet it also constantly gains him the attention of the Empress who does terrible things to him, in and out of her bed. Yet, when the girls to be sacrificed come in, and he has first pick, he sees a girl that he knows has been there before. And she might be his only chance at freedom.

And the two of their paths come together, and they are both harboring secrets that will change the outcome of the other’s world. Friends, I fell so hard and so fast for this romance. Let me for sure preface the rest of the review with that I am aware there is a very big power imbalance between Gilene and Azarion, since he does force her to help him more than what she agreed to. She is forced to be his captive for about half of this book, but it never feels like a stockholm syndrome type of storyline, at least not to me. And even though this is a dark book with a bit of a power imbalance, the author puts a huge emphasis on consent. And even when Azarion is using his privilege over Gilene, it is always and constantly challenged.

“I will conquer all of the Empire to bring you back.”

(Beautiful fanart by Melanie Bourgeois!) ❤

I think this book always has a really thought-provoking message about living your life for you, and not living your life for the expectations that your family places upon you. Duty is a huge theme in this book, and Gilene and Azarion both become aware that they are so much more than what they are expected to do, and that they both deserve happiness. And I loved watching them both come together, both willing to sacrifice it all for their homes, to both realize that they are worthy of love; not just glory.

And even though this is the start of a series, I really appreciated that the author really made this feel like a complete book. There is no terrible cliffhanger (even though the twists and turns are abundant), there is no unnecessary angst, there are no scenes that feel like filler. Yet, you are left wanting to read a hundred more books set in this world. Seriously, I’m here and ready for a book about a certain healer, a certain witch who can speak to the dead, and a certain f/f side romance that had me swooning. Like, all three (or four) books now, please! I’m begging!

Overall, I really loved this. The worldbuilding is fantastic, the writing is lush and beautiful, and the characters are phenomenal. I feel like it is so hard to find a good fantasy romance these days. Yes, there are a ton of good fantasy with swoon-worthy romances, and my heart will always love the PNR genre more than words, but I always have found it difficult to find a lot of actual fantasy romances. Honestly, the only other one that I love that comes to mind is The Bird and the Sword. Like, I hope 2019 is the year that we just get a ton of books that beautiful blend romance and fantasy the way that Phoenix Unbound has done, because I need more. I can’t wait to see what Grace Draven does next in this world.


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The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

Buddy read with Amy at A Court of Crowns and Quills! ❤