I went to the Austin Teen Book Festival several days ago, and Sherry Thomas was one author in attendance. She described her book, The Burning Sky, as “Harry Potter with cross-dressing,” which is certainly pithy, but may actually set up many readers for disappointment.
Nothing is Harry Potter. And that is OK.
The Burning Sky is actually quite different. Yes, there is a boarding school, but the whole story is set in 1883, immediately setting a very different tone. (Historical fantasy! I love historical fantasy!) The boarding school (Eton) is also set in the non-magical world, and our protagonist Iolanthe has to pretend to be non-magical herself (as well as a boy) in order to not give herself away. She’s an elemental mage, you see, and she’s been coerced by Titus, the prince of the Domain – also a magical teen pretending to be a normal, though royal, person in the non-magical boarding school – into training with him at Eton, honing her powers, in order to one day bring down the Bane, a powerful, possibly immortal being who rules Atlantis, which in turn subjugates Titus and Iolanthe’s homeland.
It’s a classic fantasy storyline, but told very well. What I found particularly engaging was the world-building, which is quite creative and left me with a feeling that I really knew the place when I finished the book. Like in Harry Potter, the magical world exists alongside the non-magical one, unbeknownst to non-magical people. That’s pretty much where the similarities end.
In Iolanthe’s world, there’s an Inquisitor who works for the Bane, able to worm her way inside someone’s brain, not precisely reading memories, but getting what she needs nonetheless. There’s also a diary full of visions that only shows certain pages depending upon what the reader needs to know. The spells are interesting – there’s one that Titus casts which makes it impossible for Iolanthe’s image to be reproduced in any way, as well as one called an “otherwise” spell that makes it seem like a person named Archer Fairfax had been attending Eton for several months before Iolanthe arrived, when in fact no such person even existed up until that point. My favorite bit, though, is the Crucible: a book that training mages can go inside in order to train with copies of past rulers and great mages, learning how to fight dragons without any danger to their actual selves…most of the time.
I love reading about cool things like this. It reminds me of the possibilities of fantasy. Creativity needn’t be earth-shaking. Even small-ish details like these lend the book uniqueness amidst its often-trodden storyline.
Over the course of the story, Iolanthe and Titus do fall in love. It’s rather slow-burning, which is nice. There’s deserved and long-lasting bitterness from Iolanthe toward Titus. Titus is wonderfully tortured, and Thomas never makes it seem melodramatic. Her career as a romance author is in evidence – she’s very good at it.
I wish I knew more about what exactly Atlantis is. (I was fascinated by the legends of Atlantis as a teenager and am eager to see if Thomas just liked the name or if there is some connection.) We never learn how Atlantis came to power, what it is exactly they do to the citizens they control, or anything about the Bane other than he’s possibly immortal. There’s also a bit near the end that I hoped was more than a plot convenience, but turned out to be just that. It was lazy writing and seemed out of place with the quality of the rest of the book.
All in all, this is very well-done high fantasy and should please fans of the subgenre. It fits very neatly into the list of books we covered in our high fantasy genre profile – magic, mages, new lands, strange creatures, a fight against evil. I’m eager for the sequels, and I hope to see more like it in the future.
Review copy received from the publisher. The Burning Sky is available now.