Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch
Years ago, the kingdom of Winter was conquered by the King of Spring, its people enslaved and its magical conduit shattered. Now without a monarch or magic, a small group of Winterians try to gather the shards of the conduit in the hopes of freeing their people and rebuilding their kingdom.
Meira has lived her whole life as a refugee, jumping from kingdom to kingdom to avoid Spring’s men. She is tired of being told she is not enough – not good enough a fighter, not subtle enough a spy, not important enough to her country. All she wants is to prove herself to her group and particularly to her best friend and future king, Mather. But will she be able to prove herself in exactly the way she wants – or is who she is not as important as what she is?
As much as I think this book was flawed, it was definitely fun to read – and for that I entirely credit Sara Raasch’s dynamic writing style. Meira is a fun heroine to follow, proud and impulsive but also observant, determined and loyal to a fault. She’s also a believable teenager, indecisive and struggling between her needs for independence and outside validation. Oh, and easily swayed by rock-hard abs and a cute smile. There’s a well-executed twist near the end that I honestly can’t believe I didn’t see coming because it’s obvious in hindsight, and I haven’t been surprised by a twist in years.
I really appreciated that Meira is allowed to be a sexual being without being shamed for it by the narrative. Her flirtations are acknowledged as improper, sure, but by adults who are messing up the situation much more than she is – and in the end, her flirtations are the least of the characters’ worries, and actually have a positive effect on the plot because the guy she was flirting with turned out to be – gasp! – helpful. I also really like that this book doesn’t force its characters into the girly girl/tomboy dichotomy: Meira likes to fight and prefers pants to dresses, but enjoys the way she looks when dolled up; Denderra is one of the best fighters in the group but would much rather wear dresses and dance than use a sword. Both of these combinations are portrayed as normal, rather than some kind of “not like other girls” bull.
And yet I started by saying this book was flawed, and boy is it ever. I have a particular pet peeve, which is when world-building doesn’t feel organic to the setting, and… yeah. I’m really not sure how this world could exist outside of someone’s imagination. There are two groups of kingdoms, arbitrarily grouped together: the Seasons and the Rythms. Now the Seasons make sense, as lands that are perpetually stuck in a particular season, but what exactly are the Rythms named after? And it’s not like all these countries are allies – it’s implied there’s some sort of cultural basis for this distinction, but we never see it. If anything, the Seasons seem to hate each other almost as they hate the Rythms, and the Rythms mostly compete with each other rather than help. If I had to guess, I’d say the author just needed countries that didn’t belong to the Season cluster and felt that if one group of countries should have a theme, the other should too. And that’s not even getting into the logistics of slavery in this world (just a hint: chattel slavery needs an outside source of new slaves to keep working, at least in the beginning. If your slaves keep dying all the time and are kept on the brink of starvation, how are they able to reproduce enough to keep their numbers stable, let alone rising?) Maybe the world will be more fleshed out in the sequels, we’ll see.
Then there’s Meira herself. While her indecision is realistic, as I said above, it also gets a bit annoying – what does this girl want, exactly? She flip-flops between wanting to be recognized for her own achievements and accepting that she’s more useful to her friends as a political tool, sometimes even in the same chapter. This kind of character-defining goal change can only really work once or twice in a single narrative, and Meira changed her mind far too often for it to remain poignant.
And yet, and yet… I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed this book more than An Ember in the Ashes, which I consider a much less flawed endeavour. It’s fun, it’s breezy, it’s an light read, and the characters are enjoyable. So while I do give it a lower ranking, know that I do still recommend this book if you’re looking for a fast-paced, light fantasy novel to pass the time. And hey, maybe the sequel will have improved! Here’s to finding out.