The Burning Sky starts off great – it tells us that a boy named Archer returned to Eton after being sent home to recover from a broken limb. It then goes on to say,
Almost every word in the preceding sentence is false. Archer Fairfax had not suffered a broken limb. He had never before set foot in Eton. His name was not Archer Fairfax. And he was not, in fact, even a he.
Well, you have my attention! Seriously, I loved this intro. It was gripping, economical storytelling that posed a puzzle and made me curious, and it promised a certain feminist quality to the story. Count me in.
Then we get into the story itself and I can’t describe it properly because the reader is never clued in to what is going on (and not in a good, ‘I’m confusing you as a stylistic choice’ kind of way). Basically Iolanthe (the girl who ends up in disguise as Archer Fairfax) is super powerful, so this evil-power-behind-the-throne person is after her, and the prince who actually is on the throne is trying to defeat the evil person (The Inquisitor) and some other even-eviler being (The Bane), and he saves Iolanthe and has her go into hiding in disguise as a boy at Eton, where the prince goes to school. And he teaches her to use her powers, and they fall in love, but it’s been prophesied that he’ll die soon, so there is angst.
There’s not a lot of context so we don’t know why the Inquisitor is in power, or why it’s so great for the prince to stay in power, not that he has any. He is a figurehead. Also, at some point the story must have explained who or what the Bane is but I must have dozed off. He’s really bad. I got that. And there’s a battle by the end but by then I was so apathetic that I sort of skimmed it. Stuff happened, there was romance, and the book ended conclusively while also leading towards the next book.
I think the problem here is mostly one of pacing. Sherry Thomas structures the book like a romance novel, but where her Regency novels are character driven without much plot or world-building to speak of, this book is all plot, and hasn’t worked out how to make us do things like understand the world and its history, or why we should care about the characters while all this plot is happening.
As is typical in a romance novel, the narration shifts from Iolanthe to Titus. It’s useful to get both of their points of view, but the shifts happen so quickly that we get very little sense of who the characters are or what’s going on around them. The shifts happen every other chapter and the chapters are short. I didn’t understand any of the context that the story depends on – not the politics, or the world, or the magic. And every time I thought I might be invested in what was happening the viewpoint changed again, often leaping to a completely different scene.
There’s lots going on in this book – action, quiet moments, intrigue – the works. But I didn’t care about any of it. Sure Iolanthe and Titus both seem like great people but I just didn’t know them well enough to be invested in their lives. I didn’t care about their romance. If anything, the whole thing made me uncomfortable because of Iolanthe’s dependence on Titus. I didn’t understand the world well enough to care about the politics. What do I care whether Titus stays on the throne?
In the past, Sherry Thomas has had a gift for making me care deeply about characters who are, in many ways, unsympathetic. She has also caused me to be heavily invested in plot lines that are based on tropes I dislike. But even though I love the fantasy genre, and even though Sherry Thomas is still an excellent descriptive writer, this book left me not caring much at all. And that was disappointing. With any other author this would have been a DNF, but I’m so invested in the author that I stuck it out. I won’t be reading the next book unless I hear glowing reports of improvement. But I will be reading her next Regency Romance and hoping for great things.