Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West is described as “Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma, and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan,” which is quite a lot for a book to live up to. I was hopeful, if a little skeptical, going in.
I love the concept of this novel. I would describe it as the fairy godmother’s side of the story, from how she gained her magic to how her life intersected with the would-be Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and her work to save them and, by extension, the kingdom. Not to spoil too much, but a big part of her magic is her ability to change her appearance, which is where the Mulan homage comes in…
BUT! On principle, I have to object to the Emma comparison. Yes, I see where it makes sense because Emma was a notorious meddler and a fairy godmother by nature is supposed to meddle, but the details aren’t really there. Most notably, a certain mentor-like relationship that develops into more is not there. Emma is not Emma if she isn’t in love with Mr. Knightley. And in this book, she isn’t.
If it weren’t for the fact that I had been primed to be looking for Emma parallels, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Our hero, Bristal, and her mentor, Brack, have a perfectly fine platonic relationship (I’m choosing to ignore one line toward the end that basically amounted to nothing), and the romance that does form is satisfying, but I never got to enjoy it because of the voice in my head going, “He’s not the Knightley parallel! Is this going to be a love triangle? Iceberg ahead!”
You can see how that might detract from the experience.
Moving past the Emma expectations, the story itself is engaging and exciting (I stayed up until 4 AM finishing the book). The world-building is fascinating; it’s a fairytale, but in a world where common magic is several generations removed, and people are nearly ready to let go of it. This creates some fun moments of dramatic irony where a character questions the need for help from those few with magical power to someone using their magical power to help in secret.
The pacing is a little erratic, however. For instance, we meet the Maleficent character right before she falls over the edge into the dark side; the timing is believable because Bristal’s arrival is kind of what incites her, but it would have been nice to see her struggle with it more, to better understand how far she’s fallen, especially since we’re supposed to believe she wants Bristal to join her. We also have the time jump from when the curse is laid on Sleeping Beauty to when she’s a teenager, which is understandable because not much plot-worthy happens in that time, but again, we lose out on character development. I have a feeling that’s where the Bristal and Brack relationship would have strengthened, either making it clearer to me that they were only going to be platonic or fulfilling some of the Emma-Knightley expectations.
All in all, I give it 3 out of 5 stars. It’s an enjoyable read, though I think it could have been a bit stronger, especially for such a great concept.