The Shattered Lands by Brenna Nation

The Blurb On The Back:

Eighteen years after her disappearance, the heir to the crown has returned.

When an ominous vision transports Sapphire to a new world, she awakens with a legacy to fulfil: she is the lost princess, and must carry on the line of the Blessed Queens.

She has much to learn, but soon Sapphire’s curiosity turns to the hidden, dark history of her kingdom.  Answers are not easy to come by – until she meets a mysterious Shadow Witch who has knowledge to share.

But there is a millennia-old rule in Eriobis: never trust a Shadow Witch.  And in a world founded on lies, magic and war, Sapphire is about to learn that perhaps rules should not be broken …

THE SHATTERED LANDS was released in the United Kingdom on 16th March 2023.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order THE SHATTERED LANDS by Brenna Nation from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

18-year-old Sapphire has spent her whole life in an orphanage in the land of Witrotean, a desolate and barren place ravaged by war and stalked by fearsome Beasts that can attack at any time.  The orphans are looked after by Mothers, but the Home was attacked by Beasts two years earlier and now the only Mother left is Martia.  Usually the children are turned out of the Home once they turn 18 but Martia has let Sapphire stay in return for her hunting for food for the other residents. 

Sapphire’s feelings of responsibility for the other children, may explain why she has been having strange dreams of a girl with red hair lost in a forest during a storm who she sees get struck by lightning.  But then on the night of her 18th birthday, the dream is different.  This time the girl speaks to her and asks for help and when Sapphire goes to touch her, she finds herself plucked from sleep into a strange forest in the real world.

With no choice but to try and find her way home on foot, she bumps into Evera (a young librarian) and learns that she has been transported from Witrotean to the kingdom of Eriobis, which is ruled over by Queen Araxia Canmore and her husband, King Kip.  Everyone in Eriobis has magic based on the elements: fire (whose users have red eyes and live in the territory of Aleburn), water (whose users have green eyes and live in Astral), air (silver eyes who live in the Isle of Isobel) and earth (blue eyes who live in Ciliria).  

Unsure how best to help Sapphire, Evera and her mother take her to the castle where Sapphire is shocked to discover that she is the missing daughter of the Queen and King, who was kidnapped by Shadow Witches (people who draw on blood and shadows for their magic) shortly after birth.  As Sapphire comes to terms with who she really is (including the fact that her normally muddy brown eyes have turned violet) and having all the food and comfort she could hope for, she finds herself drawn to Ashes – a tall, young, red-haired Shadow Witch who makes clear her contempt for the royal family and Eriobis’s people and warns Sapphire that there’s a lot about her disappearance, her parents and Eriobis’s history that she doesn’t know.

As Sapphire learns how to use her water magic and strives to learn about the country’s past, she realises that there’s a lot that Ashes can tell her.  Telling herself that this is the only reason she is drawn to seeking the other girl out, she sneaks out at night by herself to visit the forest where the Shadow Witches live.  But Ashes is not about to give up her secrets easily and while everyone keeps telling Sapphire that she should never trust a Shadow Witch, Sapphire is certain that Ashes is different and that if she can just learn the truth about herself and her past, she will be able to master the dreams that continue to plague her and the devastating power bubbling within her …

Brenna Nation’s debut YA fantasy romance (the first in a series) hit all of my personal nope buttons.  Sapphire is emotionally unconvincing and deeply annoying, especially her refuseal to listen to advice for no logical reason while her “romance” with the two-dimensional and abusive Ashes is toxic and unpleasant.  World building is generic at best and poundshop Disney at worst and adds to the glib, shallow feel such that I won’t bother reading on.

I don’t like writing very negative reviews of books.  Usually even if a book doesn’t work for me, I can find things in it that are positive or where I can see what the author was trying to do, even if it wasn’t my jam.  I just did not have that experience with this book.  Unfortunately, Nation has managed to hit every single one of my personal nope and ick buttons almost right from the get go and as a result I have really struggled with how to put together this review.

The one positive I can make about this book is that Nation appears to be writing about a matriarchal society.  Although Araxia and Kip are joint monarchs, it is Araxia who appears to have the key lineage and it is her relationship with Sapphire that is the most important, just as how with the friendship/rivalry that develops between her and the earth magic user Kaian, it is his mother Sadara who appears to be the most keen to push him forward.  Indeed, with the exception of Kaian, the main characters in this book are all female and I did like the fact that this is not shown as being a big deal or unusual – it just is.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book just deeply annoyed me.

I’m going to start with Sapphire as a character.  Nation opens the book by establishing that Sapphire cares deeply about the children in the orphanage she lives in and she worries about not bringing enough food for them.  However, once she crosses over to Eriobis, she makes absolutely zero attempt to try to get back to them, or to find out what’s happened to them and barely even thinks about them.  In fact, when she does have an opportunity to try and track down the Home, she deliberately turns back because that’s clearly something that’s going to be explored in the sequel.  The problem is that you can’t set up a character as feeling responsible and being caring when they do not follow through on it. I may have understood this had Sapphire had less freedom to act or to investigate but there’s no indication of that in the story and although Araxia and Kip are clearly hiding things, Sapphire never presses it.

Then there’s the fact that Sapphire is one of those YA main characters who has super special powers.  I don’t mind that trope per se, but the way Nation handles it is utterly lacking in depth or subtlety and it’s not helped by the fact that Nation’s world building on how magic works is so shallow.  Sapphire is in a world of magic users where everyone basically learns how to use their powers from birth but she picks it up in a few weeks and is then good enough to duel and win.  Nation never explains how people use their magic – they just do.  It isn’t clear whether the people in Eriobis have differing levels of power or whether being taught can increase their power.  The split between elemental forms of magic is all a bit basic anyway and the focus on eye colour (which is something I generally find a bit pointless and tedious) is particularly irritating given that Sapphire’s own violet eyes mark her out as someone who is super special but then at the end, when Nation reveals why it’s important, it made me wonder why something that important had not been commented on by any of the characters who knew that she had violet eyes.

My biggest issue though is that a lot of what Sapphire doesn’t make sense other than that Nation needs her to do it in order to advance the plot.  For example, she insists on trusting Ashes, repeatedly going out to look for her even when everyone has told her not to do so.  The supposed reason for this is  so that she can get information about who she is and what happened to her but at no point does Ashes ever give her this information (and frequently the scenes involve Ashes telling her she won’t help her or can’t help her).  I got that these are to develop the “romance” (which I will come back to later) but at no point does Ashes ever give Sapphire a reason to continue acting as she has.  Similarly, when everyone tells Sapphire that it would be a very bad idea to do something, Sapphire goes ahead and does it for no reason other than that it needs to happen to set up the next book.  Linked to this is the way that she decides that Evera is her friend and yet she never shows any signs of trusting her, which makes it all very glib and again, emotionally unconvincing.

That brings me to the next big issue which is that the world building here is very glib and superficial.  It might have helped has the publishers invested in putting a map into the book but I didn’t get much of a sense of how big Eriobis is (although Sapphire can apparently swim a 100 mile lake in a few hours).  Government is by hereditary monarchy but apparently the fact that Sapphire disappeared as a baby did not create any kind of constitutional crisis (and nor does her sudden return).  The castle has a Disney vibe to it, with a convenient library that apparently scholars can access but some of the books have bits missing for plot reasons – it’s also a castle in a world that has no relationship with own and yet still has French doors (and yes, that is a small point but it is still something that really irritated me).  Incidentally, Sapphire apparently has free rein around the castle and the kingdom except for when she needs to ask for permission in order to do something or go somewhere.  

The thing that annoyed me the most though is that Sapphire tells everyone that she comes from a place called Witrotean that no one else has apparently heard of and yet no one wonders if it is possibly beyond the barrier that everyone knows surrounds Eriobis.  It’s one of those obvious points that could have been easily addressed had Nation just thought through the world building a bit more and tried to make it cohesive and logical.

As the main love interest, Ashes is woefully under-developed.  I don’t have an issue with an abrasive love interest per se but there is no real back story here, no personal development beyond being snide and nasty.  At no point does she behave to Sapphire in a way that would make it understandable why Sapphire fancies her and as a result, the romance is apparently based on the fact that Ashes has red hair.  If Ashes were written as a male character, then the way she belittles and abuses Sapphire would – quite rightly – be labelled as abusive.  The fact that this is written as a lesbian romance doesn’t mean that it is any less abusive and I find it disappointing that given the lack of lesbian romance in the YA market, teen readers are given something as regressive as this.

Pacing-wise, the story meanders.  There’s a lot of repetition and – as I said above – scenes where nothing really happens.  It’s not helped by the fact that Nation has a quirk of making characters repeat each other in dialogue, which serves no purpose at all.

Ultimately I just didn’t enjoy reading this at all.  When I wasn’t rolling my eyes at the cliches or inconsistencies, I was skipping over pages to get to the end.  The book ends with a set up for the sequel but I definitely will not be reading on.  

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