Raisa is a teenage girl who belongs to the slave class in the kingdom of Qilara, a nation where literacy is restricted to the nobility. Anybody from the lower classes caught transgressing these laws is subject to harsh punishment, up to and including execution. When the tutor-in-training to the royal family is caught teaching slaves how to write, she is killed, and Raisa is selected to replace her position in the palace.
Unfortunately, for 3/4 of this book, all Raisa does is write symbols and moon over Prince Mati. That’s really it. And while the premise of the book sounded fairly intriguing, I found the overall story to be incredibly bland, and there were a number of issues that stood out for me.
Firstly, the writing is quite stilted in some places:
“This is your heart-verse,” he’d said. “Soon you will learn to read it, and to write the language of the gods yourself. When you are grown, I will train you to take my place among the Learned Ones.” I had been thrilled at the idea of one day serving among the council of four who arbitrated disputes and passed on the teachings of our people.
Secondly, the romance between Mati and Raisa has absolutely zero chemistry, and there is virtually no build-up or romantic tension. She has a crush on him on page one, and by 20% in they’re already together and sneaking around the palace to make out. Mati himself is devoid of personality; a teenage boy who thinks nothing of consequences until it’s too late.
Furthermore, the power dynamics in their relationship are inherently problematic — he is a prince and she is a slave. These kinds of situations should not be romanticised. The power he has over her is depicted when the two fight, and he switches to a cold, commanding persona, reminding Raisa of her place. When he is set to be married to another woman, he honestly doesn’t understand why Raisa is upset, and thinks they can still carry on as normal, ending with this charming declaration, “I’ve made plenty of sacrifices to be with you. What more do you want?”
Then we have this confession from Raisa, “What was wrong with me, that I still didn’t trust Mati, after all he’d done for me?”
Which sounds more like Stockholm Syndrome to me, to be honest. Also, Mati belongs to a nation of people — and more specifically, the monarchy — responsible for killing and brutalising her people, so yeah, trust should be a fragile commodity. Just because he’s sweet to you, doesn’t change a thing about everybody else who is suffering.
Indeed, Raisa is deliberately naive and quite selfish in her doings. When a group of resistance fighters try to recruit her, she turns them down out of fear of what may happen to her safe position in the palace if she is caught — which is understandable — and because of this blissfully idiotic gem of a thought, “And besides, one day Mati would be king and things would be better.”
She only begins to help the underground movement when she’s broken up (temporarily) with the prince, and is broken-hearted, searching for other ways to find meaning and keep busy.
Finally, the book tries to invert the racial dynamics of slavery, making the slaves pale with blondish hair and the oppressor class olive skinned with black hair, which just doesn’t quite work.
Overall, a flavourless fantasy-lite.
ARC received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.