The story starts when their father, the king, takes ill. Bluebell believes it to be the work of magic, so she drags her father and her sisters off to save him. The synopsis also mentions a "treacherous stepbrother" intent on seizing the throne. This isn't untrue, but the sisters aren't really aware of it, which makes for an anticlimactic climax. But more on that later! I'm going to try to split this up into categories in order to keep it more organized than it is in my head.
Characters and Points of View: So, we have five very different sisters, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that separate, relatively short POVs can keep the story moving. The disadvantage is that there's no way to like all the POV characters because they're so different, so some parts are going to drag.
Let's start with the characters I liked. Bluebell's amazing. She's fierce and loud and bossy and kind of dumb in a rash way, but she's extremely loyal to her family. The only thing she cares about is helping her father get better even if it means she'll have to wait to become king (her noun preference). Some readers will undoubtedly see her as a stereotype, but I'm a sucker for it. Only 2% into the read, this happens: '"No more of this talk," Bluebell commanded, "or I'll cut someone's fucking tongue out."' My note right there is, "I would (metaphorically) die for her." An inelegant turn of phrase to explain my attachment, to be sure, but I don't care. Give me a 12-book series about Bluebell. I would read them all again and again.
Ash is equally endearing. She's a young woman with power that she doesn't know what to do with or even if she should embrace it because she has no one to mentor her. This type of character resonates with me, so it's not surprising I gravitated toward Ash, especially because she's quite often the sole voice of reason among the five. But only when she's among her sisters. When she's alone, as I wrote in a note, she's "beautifully self-loathing and over-dramatic." She can also be read as ace, which is cool.
As for the other sisters, well . . . I had trouble connecting to them. Willow, even though she has a POV, is distant and enigmatic. Her motivations come from angels' voices in her head, but I was never quite sure if those voices were real. Her devotion to her gods wasn't written in such a way that I understood her, which bothered me. Rose loves a man who isn't her husband. I don't care for romantic story lines that much unless I'm reading a straight-out romance, and this story line offered nothing special. However, I found I had more sympathy for her once she was with only two of her sisters because she became more well-rounded. I don't really even have words for Ivy. She's a selfish, vain teenager who has no sense of the importance of what's happening or that her actions will have consequences. It was particularly hard to sympathize with her.
Then there's Wylm, the stepbrother, who has a point of view. Reading this made me think a lot about whether I prefer villains to have perspectives at all, although I haven't come up with a satisfying answer beyond, "It depends on the book." I really don't think his perspective adds a lot to this one, especially because his motivations always seem half-formed. He does a few things that we, as readers, need to know about, but if a villain has a POV, it has to be dynamic. The villain has to be dynamic. Unfortunately, here, Wylm is barely a threat. He's a mere thorn in Bluebell's side, but he imagines himself to be much deadlier and much more effective. The result of a weak antagonist is that the climax isn't really all that climactic. I think the story would've been served better by checking in on him less often.
Pacing and Plot: This book is slow. It wasn't until I was halfway through that things started to pick up and I found myself wanting to find out what happened next. I don't have anything against slow books, especially because I tend to write slow books, but the pacing would've been much easier to take had this been just Bluebell's and Ash's story. Instead, it got bogged down with too many points of view and not enough to drive them.
Because the plot is somewhat thin and there are a lot of prominent characters, Wilkins reverts to the characters acting in stereotypical ways in order to move the plot forward. In the majority of Ivy's scenes, I had the thought, "Don't do the thing!" just before she does the thing. This happened with Rose and Willow, too, although less often.
The thing the bothered me most, though, is Wilkins's treatment of Bluebell. Bluebell is supposed to be a great warrior, so much so that her enemies think of her as unkillable. Yet she's repeatedly bested in fights by little things (like tripping over a hedge?), and when she does get injured, she makes no move to stitch or bind her wounds and just kind of waits to die. She's a warrior. She should know how to take care of herself. For me, this stretched believability.
The World Revolves Around Men: Okay. This story is about five sisters, but . . . all their stories revolve around men. The driving force behind Bluebell's actions is her father. Rose's thoughts are consumed by her lover and Ivy's by men in general. Willow becomes a pawn in a man's plan. Even Ash ends up with a male mentor. It's a little frustrating to see a story featuring five women revert to fantasy's old male default. I would've loved to see a story about the sisters rather than just featuring the sisters, although I particularly enjoyed Bluebell's and Ash's bond.
Along these lines, I see we still can't write fantasy without an unnecessary threat of sexual assault. This is tired, and I wish I saw it way less often than I do. There's also some mild slut-shaming in the way Ivy treates Rose at one point and again in Ivy's ending and a touch of fatphobia.
Writing: The writing is good and made the reading experience very smooth. A few lines stood above the rest, especially those about human observation, such as, "The serving woman arrived with their meals then, thumping the plates onto the table with the kind of dull force only deeply unhappy people can achieve." There's a lot of filtering language, though, which probably only bothers people like me. Overall, I liked the writing very much but wished it had been married to stronger characters and a more solid plot.
TL;DR: This is a solid opener in an epic fantasy series. I'd certainly recommend it to readers who are looking for more female-centric epic fantasy, but it's neither perfect nor as feminist as I would've liked. That said, I will be checking out book two eventually. If you read this and love Bluebell as much as I did, I will happily chat about her with you!
Thank you to NetGalley, Del Rey, and Kim Wilkins for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
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