By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Playing with my daughter is, for the uninitiated, a confusing experience. She is blessed with both a vivid imagination and the most ridiculously large toy collection the world has ever known, and her concept of narrative boundaries is roughly on a developmental par with her acceptance of defeat in My Little Pony Monopoly; consequently, an average game will begin with Disney princess figures, take in a guest appearance from the Avengers and then be destroyed by a vengeful cuddly ring-tailed lemur. It’s a world in which Cinderella cheerfully enjoys a picnic with Rapunzel, while DJ Pon-3 from Equestria Girls (have you seen Equestria Girls, by the way? You should. The tunes are banging) provides the entertainment. Until that damned ring-tailed lemur reappears with revenge in his eyes, anyway.
If this sounds like too complex a melange of imaginative areas for you, Hannah West’s Kingdom of Ash and Briars might fry your brain. The blurb describes it was “building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan,” but the reasons for this smorgasbord of fictional allusions are not entirely clear. More on that later.
In olden days, many people had survived the Water, retrieving a powerful stone from the depths that made them ageless and immortal elicromancers. But a civil war between two factions of elicromancers had wiped most of them out a few centuries ago. After the Elicrin War, magic had greatly weakened in Nissera. (page 8)
Even before the appearance of fairy godmothers and sleepy princesses, Kingdom of Ash and Briars had me confused. In fact, the first chapter had me convinced that I’d inadvertently started reading a series with the sequel, so rapid was the pacing in the first few pages. Heroine Bristal is kidnapped from her life as a servant because she might be an elicromancer. What’s an elicromancer, I hear you cry, and does it come with health insurance? Well, Brack, who appears to be one of the last of this lofty profession (but they’re not like Jedi), explains, “as gifted beings, we are designed to guide the kingdoms of men to prosperity and peace, to come to their aid when disaster or war threatens” (page 27). Which, to be honest, is a bit like the Jedi. Elicromancers boast a dizzying array of magic powers which cover everything from shape-shifting to teleportation, although they seem to lack the ability to succinctly explain what they actually do.
Anyway, the newly-trained elicromancer, Bristal, very quickly finds herself caught in a dispute between Brack and Tamarice, the latter of whom is keen to use the powers of the elicromancers for something more exciting than general kingdom-maintenance. Her motives may or may not also include being romantically spurned by Brack; I think this was posited as a reason for her general villainousness but I decided it was reductive and annoying so I ignored it. Their fight has repercussions throughout the kingdom, and so Bristal is sent to protect a princess by hiding her in the woods and not telling her she’s a princess. While we’re adding to the list of source materials, this is basically a less-evil version of Tangled. Bristal is pretty busy though; she pretends to be a man to join a militia led by a prince and, in doing so, inevitably creates awkward sexual tension. Which, to continue this theme of jumping up and down something is reminiscent of something else, is a plot device borrowed from a quite famous playwright called Shakespeare. Guess how it turns out?
As you can possibly tell, there’s a lot going on in Kingdom of Ash and Briars. As you can probably also tell, it’s quite hard to follow. I applaud West’s construction of a rich fantasy world, as well as the devilish pace of the story; most YA fantasy novels devote huge amounts of time to world-building and backstory, while reading Kingdom is rather like having someone explain all this to you while forcing you to complete a commando assault course. You’d sort of like to stop and take notes, but someone’s busy throwing explosives at you and talking about magic stones, so there really isn’t time. I think the inclusion of so many borrowed stories only serves to confuse the main plot of political intrigue and magical warfare; it’s hard to read the book without looking out for the Disney influences, and that’s profoundly distracting. Even aside from this, Kingdom of Ash and Briars isn’t doing anything new; a teenage girl who suddenly discovers she’s magic/a princess/extremely sarcastic is hardly a rarity in YA fantasy, and Bristal is too busy exercising every aspect of sorcery imaginable for her character to be developed.
Kingdom of Ash and Briars is undoubtedly possessed of an exciting and varied plot, with plenty for a fantasy fan to enjoy (although, disappointingly, no psychotic ring-tailed lemurs). Fairy tale retellings continue to represent big business in YA publishing in 2017, with even more to come this year, so clearly there’s an audience for such a rip-roaring patchwork of familiar stories. I just don’t think that audience includes me.