It's impossible to discuss this book without addressing the controversy surrounding it. Basically, publication was delayed and digital ARCs were pulled after some preliminary readers alleged that there were passages in this book that were, according to the articles I read summarizing the issue, "anti-black." After a small but vocal minority of people decried this book-- either overtly or subtextually-- as being racist or problematic, the author took it upon herself to remove the book from circulation and make the necessary edits before resubmitting the book.
I have a few thoughts on this:
A lot of people who were talking about this book being racist hadn't actually read the ARC and were just quoting the statements of the people who had. My friend Alice has an original copy that she was comparing against the finished copy at the time of my reading this, and the final changes aren't even that different from the original and don't even seem to be describing traits that are obviously black, in my opinion. Yes, people of color are oppressed in this world, but it seemed to me that the descriptions in the book were more typical of what you might expect to see of someone who was Middle Eastern or maybe Mongolian, and not someone who was black, which would make sense since this is set in an alternate Russia. I'm honestly shocked people came at this book so hard when there are other books that are much more problematic that get a free pass-- not saying either is right, but why this book specifically? Especially when nobody I saw even seemed to be considering that the PoCs might be Asian and not black.
Second, people are saying that the decision to edit was the author's choice-- and while that is true, I don't think that she would have pulled her book if she hadn't been at the epicenter of some pretty ugly allegations and hardcore negative feedback. It's the right of people to read and interpret the book as they choose as readers, but I also think it's foolish to suggest that this was an isolated event influenced solely by the author's agency and the controversy surrounding the book had no influence on her decision. Should she have pulled it? I personally don't think so. There's always going to be controversy and if I, as an author, pulled one of my books every time someone found something problematic in them, I'd have no active books available for purchase. That said, I've also pulled some of my books from publication because I felt like I couldn't really stand behind their quality as an author, so it's possible that the feedback did make Zhao second guess herself and want to do better.
Anyway, let's get into the book. BLOOD HEIR is, like many books coming out these days, set in a world where magic is suppressed or forbidden, with an autocratic kingdom rife with corruption. There's a hint of Avatar: The Last Airbender in here, in that different Affinites have different abilities and some of them are more feared or reviled than others. The heroine, Ana, is one of these: she's a blood Affinite and can possess people's bodies and rip them open from the inside out. She's hardcore.
BLOOD HEIR is also a dark retelling of the Anastasia fairytale (I'm calling it a fairytale because the story we know and love has been debunked-- they found bones that were a DNA match for the princess, thus putting an end to the parade of hopefuls). Ana's father was murdered, and Ana herself was framed for it. She's on a quest to unmask the real culprit, save her brother and her kingdom, and exonerate herself in the process. But it isn't that simple, as she finds out, when the man she visits in jail for information turns out to be a snake of a con artist who is more than happy to throw her under the bus. Enter Ramson, the morally grey hero who has a dubious past of his own.
BLOOD HEIR is so dark and has actual stakes. There's some truly chilling scenes in here, and they're all beautifully written. Until about 70% of the story, this moves at a break-neck pace. Then it hits a slow point, but recovers in the end, which opens the door to a sequel in which I'm sure Ana will have to come to terms not just with her powers but also some new and daunting responsibilities. BLOOD HEIR is actually a lot like how I had expected books like CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE and THRONE OF GLASS to be, only I thought both of those sucked, whereas this one was awesome.
This is how you write about oppressed magic and have a morally grey but kick-ass main protagonist, who gets shit done and also has a bit of romance on the side, but doesn't let herself get distracted by it. Ana would certainly never look at a bag of candy left for her by a stranger and think, "OH BOY, YUMMERS!" without stopping to ask herself where it came from (*stares hard at Celaena*).
If you were put off by the controversy, don't be. This is pretty typical YA fantasy fare, maybe a little darker than most, but engaging and well-written, with a heroine who doesn't suck and has to make some pretty miserable choices over the arc of her character development. I liked it.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars