Ash is descended from a long line of gladiators, and she knows the brutal nature of war firsthand. But after her mother dies in an arena, she vows to avenge her by overthrowing her fire god, whose temper has stripped her country of its resources.
Madoc grew up fighting on the streets to pay his family’s taxes. But he hides a dangerous secret: he doesn’t have the earth god’s powers like his opponents. His elemental gift is something else—something that hasn’t been seen in centuries.
When an attempted revenge plot goes dangerously wrong, Ash inadvertently throws the fire and earth gods into a conflict that can only be settled by deadly, lavish gladiator games. The fights put Madoc in Ash’s path, and she realizes that his powers are the weapon her rebellion needs—but Madoc won’t jeopardize his family, regardless of how intrigued he is by the beautiful warrior.
But when the gods force Madoc’s hand, he and Ash uncover an ancient war that will threaten more than one immortal—it will unravel the world.
Welcome back to another installment of buddy reads between Fives and Andge at Down the Rabbit Hole!
This time, we ventured into a YA fantasy together, the first book in its duology. While this is nothing out of the ordinary to myself, Andge, my partner and friend, Fives, brings a pair of new eyes to YA fantasies with different expectations and insights than I may have.
Without further ado, here are our thoughts and discussions about this book!
Andge: I always think a good book is made up of a good foundation which can be found in its plot. Particularly important for fantasies in my opinion is its word building. Here, I found myself rather intrigued. There are 6 gods, children of the Mother Goddess who has been dead for centuries, and each god’s children may potentially inherit the ability associated with their elemental nature, known as energeia. I loved this uniqueness, especially because the elements aren’t relegated to just simple fire, water, air and earth. There is also animal and plant energeia which I’ve never seen elsewhere.
I only had two problems with how Raasch and Simmons crafted this world. First, it was an info dump in the beginning which may leave you scrambling to understand all the names of the places, gods and what their energeia can do. Second, even worse than the first, is that this story wastes so much of the world building. We only follow Deimans (the Earth people) and Kulans (the Fire people) with only brief mentions of the other people and places. I wish the authors could’ve done more here with its potential because I think relegating everyone and everything else to book 2 will probably not allow much time or exploration.
Fives: I definitely have to agree with Andge here. Even as only an occasional reader of YA fantasies, I did recognize that elements beyond the base four was something special. This made me immediately look forwards to seeing the plant and animal gods, and how their powers might manifest beyond the “normal” manipulation of the elements. To my surprise and great disappointment, neither of these clans really show up! The main characters are from earth and fire, so we get plenty of world building from these two peoples (two POVs as well). But we are left almost completely in the dark when it came to the other four gods.
I personally enjoy world building, and don’t mind too much if it can be complicated and rather laborious to be explained. However, the way it was written here really set me up to expect so much more. The little tidbits of the earth and fire people really got my excited to meet the rest of the clans. It is unfortunate that there is a beautiful trajectory of the world and how it could be built and explained, but then for me it just falls short when it doesn’t come up to my expectation. I do really like what I see and admire the uniqueness of the concept, but do wish I could have seen more of this wonderfully intriguing world.
Andge: With the info dump at the beginning I mentioned came a sluggish start. It may discourage some people from continuing because the real gladiator arena fighting between the Deimans and Kulans take a while to come. I understand the need for setting up the story but it always makes me antsy when we know so much of what WILL happen from the synopsis but it doesn’t occur until way later in the book. The pace definitely picks up by the halfway mark, with an element of intrigue entering into the midst as we wonder about a potential conspiracy among the gods and a surprising gift one of the protagonists has.
Fives: Again, I have to agree with Andge on the pacing – definitely slow. While understandable for world-building (and even though I don’t personally mind too much), the high number of names and terms to get acquainted with is a bit daunting for sure. I loved the whole concept and really wanted to see where it could lead, but the beginning wasn’t able to hook me much. I felt that the middle was quite exciting and driving, but the ending fell a bit short for me. Overall I did not have a hard time reading this book, and I enjoyed it, but there were definitely clear sections where I felt excited to read more, and parts where I was wondering when the next thing would happen.
Andge: Last but not least, this story ultimately follows Madoc (a Deiman) and Ash (a Kulan) in alternating POVs as they find themselves on the path towards becoming gladiators and fighting for their respective gods in the arena. I liked them, which is always a plus (it is terrible to have to stick with a protagonist you can’t stand), but I didn’t feel anything too special about any of them. Ash is hurt and brimming with vengeance for her mother’s death, a trait that I can sympathize. Madoc, on the other hand, yearns to find his place and be recognized, with the additional protective streak for his found family. But beyond this, I didn’t see anything special in either one of them.
Any secondary characters were not completely two-dimensional, but I found myself wanting to see more of them. For example, Ash’s entourage of Kulan fighters seem brave and equally tired of fighting their god’s wars, but we don’t spend enough time with them. Or Madoc’s adoptive brother and sister who seem to just be more plot elements than real people I care about. I’m not sure if it’s just me being jaded.
Fives: The story follows Madoc and Ash who each have something to fight for as they risk their lives for their goal. Beyond being relatable, and having a complex background to earn sympathy, there isn’t really that much making them more special of a character – although not necessarily a bad thing. Beyond their tragic pasts or their unfortunate circumstances, the authors do not really make it a point to milk these connections and really draw me in. They mention many times, or allude to many things that are quite sad or haunting, but don’t really use it to evoke emotions more than the surface level expected ones.
I definitely agree with Andge that the secondary characters were much more foil in nature – I am not entirely sure if we were supposed to feel sorry for them or be invested in their story, but they definitely felt like a means to an end for the main characters, and it really felt like no one else in the story mattered but them (main character syndrome?). But if you like books all about the main characters, then this is for you!
Have you read this one before or have it on your TBR? We are always delighted to hear your thoughts!
Until next time, friends.