Shalia is a proud daughter of the desert, but after years of devastating war with the adjoining kingdom, her people are desperate for peace. Willing to trade her freedom to ensure the safety of her family, Shalia becomes Queen of the Bonelands.
But she soon learns that her husband, Calix, is motivated only by his desire to exterminate the Elementae—mystical people who can control earth, wind, air, and fire. Even more unsettling are Shalia’s feelings for her husband’s brother, which unleash a power over the earth she never knew she possessed—a power that could get her killed. As rumors of a rebellion against Calix spread, Shalia must choose between the last chance for peace and her own future as an Elementae.
Well, that was draining.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a really good book. And I went into it having read all the reviews that warned that it wasn’t an easy book to read. But somehow the colourful cover still tricked me into thinking that maybe it wasn’t that bad and it would be a somewhat dark, but entertaining, adventure.
(How was this book ever shelved as YA?)
It was heavy and at times depressing because the main character is in this really abusive relationship in a very sexist society and she’s just facing down this sheer powerlessness. And this makes her journey to regain her own strength without losing her kindness and love and compassion really impactful, but it also puts the first half of this book in league with The Handmaid’s Tale for how difficult it was to read.
(I do not say this lightly. If there is any chance you may be triggered by reading an abusive relationship with physical violence and what’s essentially rape, please do not read this book. I say this as someone who has only ever seen loving relationships around her, and sometimes I felt like I was being pulled down by the weight of it all.)
That being said, the relationship is in no way, shape, or form romanticized. A.C. Gaughen does a really good job of showing how someone can almost trick themselves into thinking their abuser not being overtly cruel to them is love, to the point where even the reader is pulled in. Because you so acutely feel the fear and panic and desperation of Shalia (which I think shows how good Gaughen is at making you empathize with the characters), when her husband, Calix is coming close to doing the bare minimun, you feel the same relief and gratitude Shalia feels, and you’re wondering if, perhaps, this is the time it will stay like this if she just keeps on being nice.
Of course, that’s not how this works, and the whole idea that “I can save him with love” is very much examined and dismantled. Calix is who he is, and no matter how much effort Shalia puts into doing everything the way he wants and trying to “love” him, that’s not going to change. This is really well contrasted by the romance that does develop between Shalia and someone else, which is based on kindness and mercy and support between two equals. It built very naturally and AAAAAAAH I SHIP IT SO MUCH THESE TWO JUST DESERVE SO MUCH BETTER THAN THE WORLD HAS DEALT TO THEM.
I also really liked Shalia’s characterization. Initially, I was really annoyed at her for continuing to try and be kind and obliging instead of fighting back, but Gaughen also did a really good job of showing how keeping one’s ability to love and be kind and not lose faith in people’s inherent goodness in the face of incredible cruelty is a marker of a very strong person. Shalia grows a lot as the story progresses, but she never loses the compassion that is at her core. The acknowledgements section quoted Rachel Platten’s Fight Song, and I think it’s the perfect anthem for Shalia. This is the story of people doing unspeakable cruelty to her and trying to strip her of all the power she ever had, but it’s also the story of her putting herself back together, reclaiming that power, and never giving into hate, no matter how easy it would be.
The problems I have with the book are minor, minor things. The magic system is something I’ve seen before, the world wasn’t as rich as others I’ve seen, but the story is really about the strength of one woman’s character in the face of incredible adversity. It’s emotionally taxing, but, like Shalia, the story comes out stronger because of it.
(But. How. Did. This. Get. Shelved. As. YA. I would not recommend this for a lot of young adults.)