From Blood and Ash is Jennifer L. Armentrout's first foray into adult high-fantasy fiction. This series takes place in a world that is split into two territories (countries?? cities??). There's Solas and Atlantia. About 500 years ago, these two countries went to war, and the people of Solas overthrew and almost eradicated the Atlantians. During this period, the people of Solas created a bastardized version of the magic that is inherent to the Atlantians, and they appropriated the Atlantian gods.
Now Solas is in power, and their society is ruled by the "Ascended," a faction of their people who drink the blood of the gods and become super-natural entities themselves.
Penellephe is the "chosen," "the Maiden." From birth, she was destined to be sacrificed to the gods. As she's nearing her nineteenth birthday, she starts to question if the gods really chose her, and why. Unable to speak or act for herself, Poppy tries to eek out any independence she can. She wants to live a little before she's given over.
Poppy has been learning and living in secret. Training with a bow and a sword so she can protect herself the way her parents never could. She's found passageways through the castle, and she sneaks out in the night when she's avoiding her own nightmares.
One of these nights, she sneaks into bawdy tavern called The Red Pearl to play cards and watch the people. When her closest guard and confidant comes in -- believing she's safely in her room for the night -- Poppy hurries to get away, climbing to the second floor where people find another kind of entertainment.
When she rushes into a room she believes is empty, she finds herself alone with someone she shouldn't be. The new, young, impossibly-handsome palace guard, Hawke Flynn.
From Blood and Ash is a big undertaking. It's a huge series with a lot going on, but my biggest critique is that the world building really lacks a foundation. There are little plot holes that Armentrout skips over.
The vague background and confusing world-building create a really foggy understanding in the beginning. It took me a while to really understand the world that Poppy is living in and how and why it's all impacting her the way it is.
1. I can't remember if they really explained that there were two countries(?) that went to war, but if they did, it was never clear that the current rulers created the Ascended "magic?" We don't get any concrete explanation of what happened here. Why are they being Ascended? What's the benefit?
2. They never tell Poppy why she has to be given to the gods. It's tied into the fact that other people will be "Ascended" at the same time, so they need her. But they've been ascending people all along and never sacrificed anyone before. Poppy and the reader never get a reason for this.
3. Poppy has an older brother named Ian. He ascended before the beginning of the book, but Poppy is not allowed to see him at all. This doesn't make sense because other Ascended live right in the town surrounding the castle. They typically don't go out in the day because, like vampires, they'll die (although apparently they're not vampires), but they still have lives, sorta. (Also they made Ian get married for some reason, and MULTIPLE TIMES, Poppy fixates on how he never mentions his wife in his letters. I don't know why this matters).
There's no reason Poppy can't see her brother. I don't know why she doesn't fight it more. I understand that she's been groomed to be quiet and docile, but she's feisty. Fitting with her characterization, there should be times she pushes against that. Because wanting to see her brother is a big part of what drives Poppy, it would make sense for her to break her quiet "Maiden" persona for that reason.
Later on, she references how "she knew something was wrong and didn't want to face it," but she really doesn't do this early in the book.
She doesn't really question anything, never questions anything out loud. She's a really feisty character otherwise, so I would've liked that to come into play. She gets punished for mundane actions, which fits with the story, but Armentrout should've thrown in a scene where Poppy is punished for acting out or pushing them about her brother.
There were a lot of aspects that were set up to be something or foreshadowed/implied the story was going to do something with, but those threads either get left out or the story goes in a direction that doesn't match what Armentrout set up. Particularly surrounding Ian.
What I really do love about this book is the banter and relationship between Poppy and Hawke. Hawke in particular is an unapologetic morally-gray character, but instead of being dark and moody, he's really funny and really carries the novel.
I like that he's not this doom-and-gloom killer. He's unapologetic toward the things he's had to do as a guard, etc., but he's upbeat, heartfelt, and hilarious. Hawke is a very well-rounded character.
When it comes to the aspects around him... related to him... not so much. For example, the book's synopsis paints Hawke as someone "who's constantly in pain" and living with a type of deep hurt that Poppy can't imagine.
Poppy can sense pain in others, and the synopsis and a couple lines in the book seem to imply that Poppy was drawn to Hawke early on (before meeting him in the tavern) because of this overwhelming pain he lives with. She can't imagine how he can function through that, be upbeat through that.
But this never comes up. Poppy's friend jokes that Hawke's the guy that Poppy "watches," but we never see that. It's never even alluded to when Poppy stumbles on him in The Red Pearl. This is a huge miss for me, because I would've loved this characterization for Hawke, and I would've loved to see that empathy in Poppy that's only hinted at.
I'm trying not to mention the later books, because this was a re-read for me, so I have some extra insight that I don't want to bring in. I will say that knowing what happens going forward... the books don't clear anything up and sometimes they even make these issues more glaring.
There are a lot of things that are over-explained and over-complicated, then there are aspects that Armentrout doesn't go into enough detail about. This trend continues.
This book lands pretty solidly on four stars because of the way Poppy and Hawke are when they're together. Sometimes I don't like Poppy. But that's because Armentrout doesn't do a good job weaving the two halves of who Poppy is together. She's this docile Maiden who's isolated and punished AND she's this kick-ass warrior who doesn't need anyone protecting her. And she's witty. There were times were Armentrout should've done something different with those two halves. She should've brought them together better, and showed the real, tough Poppy under the veil of the Maiden.
There are so many missed opportunities and places where she could've really fleshed Poppy out... but she didn't.
But then there are in-scene moments between the two of them that are so funny and surprising.
This book excels in the character-driven aspects. I can't say that enough. Our main (three) characters are so good together. There are relationships and friendships that are fleshed out in entirely new and realistic ways. For this alone, it's worth the read.
But the plotting (and pulling those threads across) really dropped the ball. She already has things in the foundation that she could use to make the story better, but she creates new aspects and overcomplicates rather than using what she has already.
I don't want to explain this with examples because I don't want to spoil anything... but there are a lot of missed opportunities.
I'm really waffling between 3-4... I think on enjoyment level alone and only focusing on book one, it's a four... maybe a 3.5? But knowing there are more issues as the series continues... maybe a three?
I really want to give this a four, but I don't think I can. If I could just rate Hawke?
4 for Hawke definitely. Hawke pulls it through.