A. M. Strickland
published: 18th March 2021
In Thanopolis, those gifted with magic are assigned undead spirits to guard them—and control them. Ever since Rovan’s father died trying to keep her from this fate, she’s hidden her magic. But when she accidentally reveals her powers, she’s bound to a spirit and thrust into a world of palace intrigue and deception.
Desperate to escape, Rovan finds herself falling for two people she can’t fully trust: Lydea, a beguiling, rebellious princess; and Ivrilos, the handsome spirit with the ability to control Rovan, body and soul.
Together, they uncover a secret that will destroy Thanopolis. To save them all, Rovan will have to start a rebellion in both the mortal world and the underworld, and find a way to trust the princess and spirit battling for her heart—if she doesn’t betray them first.
Galley provided by publisher
CWs: blood, gore
This is yet another review that I have to open up with the disclaimer that this book suffered from my continuing (though more occasional now) …let’s say issues with YA fantasy, and if you are interested in it, don’t let this review stop you.
That being said, there were parts of it that I genuinely didn’t like and that’s not just me and YA fantasy.
Basically, this book follows the “oppressed mage is enslaved by evil king who wants her power” trope. Now, I don’t know how much any of you have read about the whole “oppressed mage” trope, because I think a lot of that conversation surrounds video games, not books, but it’s a whole thing. (This piece here will give more depth than I’ll go into in this review, but also if you just google oppressed mage trope or something similar, there’s a lot out there.)
Let me open with a quote from that piece that probably sums up what about the trope is so frustrating:
My issue is that fantasy (and science-fiction) metaphors for bigotry don’t actually help anyone. These stories are for the privileged progressives to look at each other, wink and say, “What a good person I am, I know what this story is about, and I am on the right side.”
Mages are, as this essay states, a kind of vague catch-all minority. They’re what happens when you can’t quite be bothered to create a specific identity for your oppressed group. And, much like in the example of Dragon Age in the essay, this book then screws it up by attempting to justify this oppression. Bloodmages in In the Ravenous Dark are dangerous and must be controlled.
A failure to understand why systematic persecution of minorities exists often leads writers [to attempt to] justify it, as if the propaganda that the marginalized are dangerous must be true in order for the oppression to exist, or even begin.
If you consider real life bigotries, those always come with propaganda to dehumanise the victims. Here, with fantasies justifying their bigotries, that plays into the whole cycle. It lays the blame on victims of oppression as causes of that oppression.
And, yeah, so the whole idea of this can be done well (the essay offers an example of how), but, in all honesty, this book didn’t have the range to do that. It was, in all, a fairly simplistic tale: oppressed mage is enslaved by evil ruler, realises that the evil ruler is the reason the country is going to shit, has to take down the evil ruler (and, in the process, free themselves).
But I think what made this version of the story especially unnuanced was the fact that it seemed very much to be advocating for an individualistic view, as opposed to systemic. Barring the two obviously evil members of the royal family — a royal family that had benefited from bloodmage oppression, I might add, even if some of their own were also bloodmages (side note: I didn’t understand this. The magic of this world was massively underdeveloped for me) — it was alright because everyone else was fine! You get rid of the two who are doing the immediate damage and it’s all sorted. But to me, that shifts the blame from a system built to oppress onto individuals. The whole “it’s just a few bad apples” argument.
I guess this was namely because the main character’s two love interests were a member of the royal family and her literal torturer (the way bloodmages were controlled was via this ghost creature which basically fed off them-slash-acted like a shock collar when they did something the royal family disliked). Of course, you want to be pushing the “bad apples” narrative when both your love interests actively benefit from the main character’s oppression. This book ended up doing the most to sell the idea that the problem wasn’t the system, but the people using it. (Spoiler alert: it can be both.)
Moving on from this, there were other issues I had — although these are probably more mundane. Firstly, the worldbuilding was lacking. I couldn’t really tell you anything in particular about this fantasy world. There are bloodmages, and that’s about it. Nothing really stood out for me as memorable. (Also, in case you hadn’t realised, my non-usage of names in this review is because I cannot remember a single one! None of them stuck!) Add onto that the fact that the magic system was just… all over the place, bringing up pertinent information right at the end in a kind of deus ex machina haha you didn’t know this could happen but it can! without any foreshadowing? I think at one point I just gave up trying to understand what was going on.
Although there was worldbuilding enough to make this a misogynistic world that sees the bloodmage women as “broodmares”. Thanks, I guess.
And then there’s the fact that, at points, the plot just seems stupid. The dude love interest has actually been trying to take down the true villain for …four hundred years! Is he so singularly useless that in FOUR HUNDRED YEARS he has had absolutely no impact? Not until the main character shows up? Apparently so! (Also, another side note: why is there a multiple-centuries-years-old love interest for a YA protagonist? Why does he latch onto her? Is he a creep?) Add onto that the aforementioned sudden introduction of previously unmentioned information that just so happened to resolve any problems that might have faced the main character? Can you see why I stopped paying attention after a bit?
On top of all this, I just found the plot moved entirely too slowly and I got bored. That old chestnut. It wasn’t until maybe the final third that things started actually happening and, honestly, I think I just kept reading out of some sort of habit.
Frankly, perhaps I could have seen this all coming, given that the blurb flat out refers to one of the main character’s love interests as “the handsome spirit with the ability to control her, body and soul”.
Big red flag right there.