I have a confession to make. I have a severe problem with most YA Fantasy that begins and ends with Bad Writing, Weak World Building, and Boring Characters. I’ve read more YA in the past two years than I care to admit and out of all of them, only two of them have managed not to disappoint me. Unfortunately, they were both contemporary YA. YA Fantasy tends to fail often with me, especially of those of the self-proclaimed high-fantasy variety. Whether it’s the lack of cohesive worldbuilding, the hyper-focus on flimsy fast-paced romance, or drudging plots. So, when something comes along that not only subverts my expectations, but exceeds them…
Well, I just might want some sugar with my coffee!
Welcome to the Cerebral Hedonist, I’m your Scholarly Squid and I’m about to gush all over this review of,
((Warning: I’m about Hype cause this book snatched all my braids out!))
Blood Heir is a Young Adult High Fantasy set in the Cyrillion Empire – a Russian inspired country/empire. It tells the story of a lost princess, a corrupt monarchy and government, and an oppressive class struggle. It sets itself as a reimagining of the historical figured Anastacia Nikolaevna Romanov and while you will find some things similar to the more romanticized aspects of the lost Duchess, that is where any connection ends. Blood Heir follows Anastacya Mikhailov, a disgraced princess and fugitive thought to be dead by her empire. She seeks to find the man who framed her for murder with the help of the dastardly dashing disaster that is Ransom Quicktongue — a criminal in his own right and a conman who is on a revenge path against those who betrayed him.
However, it is not so easy as simply capturing their target, because you see, Anastacya has something thing uncontrollable working against her — her affinity. Affinites are people born with supernatural abilities and subjugated by empire Anastacya is an heir to. She happens to have one of the rarest and most dangerous affinities in existence, a blood affinity. Charged with the murder of her father, the Emperor himself, by way of hemorrhaging, Anastacya is forced to become acquainted with the true face of her empire and the pain brought by the trafficking and oppression of Affinites while warring with the monster inside of her. She and Ransom function as two morally gray protagonists who flirt with good and evil both outside and within!
Amelie (Pronounced Ah-May-Lee) Wen Zhao is a Chinese Author who has, like many of us, been making up stuff since she was able to hold a pen. Though she was born in Paris, she was raised in Beijing within a diverse, multicultural community where she later attended an international school. This, I believe, is where she was able to emersed herself into other worlds and cultures and languages thus becoming such an incredibly unique storyteller. As I have interviewed her, I can honestly say she is a LITERAL fucking ray of sunshine! She has such a positive outlook that its almost a fault, but it makes it easy to see why she writes such intricate and complex characters. Now that she is writing full time, she will be delving more into fantasy and continue to push the limits of her imagination.
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room. This book had a rough start prepublication. People swarming over something foolish that someone said and feeling the need to prevent its publishing and honestly, I’m glad they failed. Once I finally got a hold of this book and read the first chapter my whole world stopped. Not because I was blown away by some holier-than-thou prose, but rather that it was written so tightly and the imagery gave me something to grasp on to. I was placed into a small piece of the world Zhao had created, given an instance and an event that led into the opening of the larger world. THAT was something I hardly get to experience so smoothly in YA fantasy and it wrapped me around Ana and Ransom’s fingers easily. Their perspectives on the world they inhabited were vasty different. Ana realizing how dark and sickening the empire she and her brother were meant to rule was and Ransom discovering there are parts of it worth fighting for even as he tries his hardest to remain aloof and apathetic.
Cyrillia is a solidly built world steeped heavily in Russian culture and while some may find the names for things a bit jarring if they only lightly step into fantasy, but an avid fantasy reader you’ll have no issue with acclimating to the world and its words. The intrigue is slow – not sluggish, only slow. It’s the type of burn that isn’t meant to explode into a super massive climax, but rather show the ups and downs and turmoil the characters have to face. Much if it involves playing the parts of people that Ana hates and being at war with the violence and trauma inside of her and Ransom playing a careful game in which he must balance Ana’s trust with his desire to return to his former life. The conflict within them is absolutely enrapturing and Zhao is not afraid to allow her characters to do evil things in order to achieve their goal. She’s also not afraid to allow them to feel the damage of their actions and how it affects them as well as the people they’re meant to help.
The romance itself is certainly done very well. There is no insta-love. There’s more of an enemies-to-lovers feel as neither of them trust each other and Ransom spend a good chunk of the book intentionally playing Ana for his own means. This was perfect because they knew nothing about each other. Absolutely nothing. It gave time for them to learn, grow, and figure out that there’s some parts of each other and themselves that they can’t fix or change without a healthier path. This could’ve easily been a toxic dynamic, but instead they came out to be the greatest power couple I’ve read in a while and SPOILER: they don’t even kiss or get together in the end!
Instead you’re treated to a new level of trust between them that is healthy and important to show between younger people. That they don’t always have to start off as absolutely crazy about each other. That you both can be flawed and down right broken in a way in which you can’t help but use against each other. That in the end, its okay to take it slow and let it simmer. Zhao does some good relationship building.
Honestly, trying not to spoil it is extremely difficult because there’s so much I want to talk about but lets get to my favorite part!
Amelie Wen Zhao put her damn foot in this book.
Young Adult often has a writing (and often editing issue) where you’re often talked down to by the writing and its issues are presented in the shallowest of levels. You can often spot many, many errors and issues that remain blatantly present in the final product. With the rush of YA series debuts to be pushed out in two years or less (not to mention having a new book damn near every nine months to a year) often follows a diminishment of quality. Considering YA is a well-fed market, it often doesn’t matter.
Then we have Zhao!
Firstly, this woman is talented. She has a great command of how and what she wants you to see and what she doesn’t. The execution of her plot threads is impressive for a debut writer and near immaculate for her chosen category. Even though this is very much a Young Adult story, it doesn’t sacrifice complexity, in-depth character development, and a slow burn in favor of surface level tropes. Her prose is surprisingly smooth and the events and intrigue of the plot flow into each other almost seamlessly rather than the choppy “and then and then and then” I normally encounter in YA fantasy. It reads as a completed story in that everything she shows you has its due payoff that does not disappoint nor comes off as arbitrary. What isn’t paid off leaves you wonderful hints for the coming sequel, Red Tigress (available pre-order, click here). Honestly her command of her own narrative and her characters creates such an immersive experience that I — who is often disappointed in the quality and flimsiness of many YA Fantasy world building and execution — am enthusiastic to embrace more YA fantasy in the same way Mary HK Choi has brought me to embrace YA Contemporary
NOW that being said. This is by no means a flawless work.
There are some points in which I wished there was more introspection for Ana and Ransom — more insight into their heads for each other their chapters at certain points. I do wish there was more presented of Ana’s trauma response to a character’s death — though I appreciate that it was not simply brushed off and moved on. The ending might grate just a little NOT because it’s BAD, but because it feels rushed. It felt like there is something missing towards the end (perhaps cut in editing) that felt important for the build up to the ending. It also felt a bit sporadic as though there was a need to finish. The court scene at the end was very hasty but even with these complaints, I will say it did not lower its rating for me. Zhao took me on a ride that I enjoyed from start to finish and even in the bumpy parts I was never pulled out of the struggle and romance of Ana and Ransom which is one of the most satisfying slow burns I’ve been allowed in a long time.
Needless to say, any flaws I’ve found are things that can (and I have a grand feeling they WILL) improve as Amelie Wen Zhao continues her career in fantasy writing.
Blood Heir deserved none of the egregious drama it garnered from the mob and, unfortunately, other YA authors. This is a wonderful book! One I’m so happy Zhao decided to release despite it all. Knowing that I could’ve been denied this makes something in me act because I truly, genuinely enjoyed this piece of storytelling and now, having spoken to the author herself, I love it even more. The writing, the world, the romance, and most importantly, the characters all fit together well and while it may not be the title on everyone’s lips, I feel that the people who read and enjoy my blog will find that this is a fantasy that is just for them, as much as it was just for me. I think the best description I have for it is that its SOLID.
Show some love to Amelie Wen Zhao and buy Blood Heir and pre-order it’s sequel Red Tigress! Support her because she about to do some amazing things both with this series and in fantasy and absolutely CANNOT WAIT!
Stay Well-Read, My Squidlies!
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