As others have said, it starts off sounding like a very young YA book, but then something happens-- the inciting event-- and suddenly, the book gets dark. In some ways, this is a bit like Game of Thrones with the more offensive content removed, and that actually made it work really well for me because I loved the court intrigue of GoT but really hated the over-the-top torture and violence. There are some graphic scenes in here that are darker than what you would usually see in YA, but it isn't lingered on the way violence tends to be in adult fantasy.
All the characters in this book are likable, except for the ones who aren't supposed to be. Tallia, the main character, is crude and strong and funny, but she's also into feminine indulgences, as well. I'm honestly shocked that this character was written by a man, because way too often, male authors write female characters in a way that feels stereotypical and two dimensional, and both Tallia and Lyriana were interesting-- but in different ways, and they always felt like they were their own person.
Shvarts is also very comfortable writing from the perspective of the female gaze, which makes the scenes between her and Zell a pleasure. One of my favorite parts of this book is how Lyriana talks about her reasons for wanting to be chaste and Tallia later ends up sex, and her reasons for doing so were not diminished by Lyriana's, and she wasn't shamed for it (except by one bad character). It made the book feel very sex positive, but I liked the message that it's okay to not have sex, too.
The fantasy world itself was pretty good. It's a little stock but the complexity of the story makes up for the cliches. The only thing that took me out of the book at times was that all of the characters speak in a way that feels very contemporary and modern, despite this being one of those Medieval-Inspired Fantasy Stock Universes, which can be a bit jarring and anachronistic. I think it works for teens (and me), though, because it makes it much breezier to read without all the whilsts, thous, and verilys.
Honestly, I ended up liking this soooo much more than I thought I would and I would read the sequel happily. Definitely looking forward to this author's 2021 release too, which is set in a magic school. If you, like me, were hesitant to read this because of the initial negative reviews, I'd say give it a shot!
3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars