Friday, May 31, 2019

#Review - Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto #YALIT #Fantasy

Series: Crown of Feathers
Format: Hardcover, 496 pages
Release Date: February 12th 2019
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Historical

I had a sister, once…

In a world ruled by fierce warrior queens, a grand empire was built upon the backs of Phoenix Riders—legendary heroes who soared through the sky on wings of fire—until a war between two sisters ripped it all apart.

I promised her the throne would not come between us.

Sixteen years later, Veronyka is a war orphan who dreams of becoming a Phoenix Rider from the stories of old. After a shocking betrayal from her controlling sister, Veronyka strikes out alone to find the Riders—even if that means disguising herself as a boy to join their ranks.

But it is a fact of life that one must kill or be killed. Rule or be ruled.

Just as Veronyka finally feels like she belongs, her sister turns up and reveals a tangled web of lies between them that will change everything. And meanwhile, the new empire has learned of the Riders’ return and intends to destroy them once and for all.

"Sometimes the title of queen is given; sometimes it must be taken. And sometimes the honor becomes so drenched in blood and betrayal that it is slippery to the touch, but we reach for it nonetheless, poison on our fingers and vengeance in our hearts."

Crown of Feathers is the first installment in author Nicki Pau Preto's Crown of Feathers series. Sold as An Ember in the Ashes meets Three Dark Crowns, this debut fantasy novel tells the story about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to join a secret group of warriors that ride phoenixes into battle. Once upon a time, there were a group of people called Phoenix Riders who went down in flames spectacularly after their Queen, Avalkyra Ashfire, tried to do too much too quickly and were defeated by the Golden Empire.  

16-year old Veronyka and her sister Val have been nearly inseparable since their grandmother died. They are both curiosities in that they are animages capable of understanding and communicating with animals. While Val is the dominant, manipulative sister, Veronyka dreams of one day becoming a Phoenix Rider. Both sisters are also shadowmages which are prohibited in this realm. The sisters have been in hiding and moving from place to place for years. When they're not hiding and moving quickly, they hunt for Phoenix eggs. 

They discover two eggs but only one hatches. The one that hatches, Xephyra, chooses Veronyka to bond with instead of the elder sister Val. But, a shocking betrayal by Val pushes Veronyka over the edge, driving her to strike out on her own. Grieving deeply, she disguises herself as a boy in order to join the legendary ranks of the Phoenix Riders since they have a rule against girls joining their ranks. But, we haven't seen or heard the last of Val just yet. Not even close! 

The second main character is Sevro. Sev is a soldier by choice after his parents, Riders, were killed in the last war doing what they do best. One could say that he has loads of regrets and anger simmering waiting to explode. Anyone who is an animage is either pressed into service for life as a bondservant, or killed. In the time we visit with Sev, he meets with Veronyka and her Phoenix and helps her escape. He encounters (2) bondservants who are plotting against the Empire and push him into helping. Sev makes a choice to offer a warning to the small contingent of Riders who are hiding from the Empire while also giving them hope for the future. 

The third character is Tristan. Tristan is a Phoenix rider who’s afraid of fire and he feels like he’s a constant disappointment to his father. Phoenix riders have a bad rule in place that doesn't allow girls to join them. This is exceptionally hypocritical since the original riders were all women. Tristan's relationship with his father could be called tumultuous, it could also be called toxic since the father doesn't have much faith in his own son. It isn't until Tristan meets Nyk, Veronyka in disguise as a boy, that things take an interesting twist.  

Interspersed throughout is the story of Avalkyra Ashfire, the last Rider queen, who would rather see her empire burn than fall into her sister Pheronia's hands. Now, 16 years later, it appears as though the Riders are attempting to regather and take a stand against the Golden Empire which despises them and seeks to end them once and forever. At the end of each chapter, there are points that tell the story of the two sisters who ended up on the opposite sides in the last war. The similarities between the warring queens and Veronikas relationship with her sister Val was interesting as well as leaving questions which needs to be answered.




Joints of venison blackened and burned on the spit, and racks of ribs stewed so long that they were dry and brittle as driftwood. She dug through rotten lettuce and potato peelings for tiny, sharp-as-daggers fish bones and the hollow, delicate bones of birds.

The small owl perched on her shoulder hooted softly in distaste at her most recent discovery. Veronyka shushed him gently, piling the bird bones inside her basket with the rest and standing.

It was late evening, the cool night air threatening frost. The village streets were empty and quiet, with no one to notice the solitary girl digging through their garbage heaps. The clouds above glowed iron gray, obscuring the full moon and making it almost impossible to see in the darkness. That was why she’d called the owl to be her guide. His eyes were precise in the black of night, and with a nudge to her mind, he showed Veronyka the way over rocks and boulders and under low-hanging branches. In her haste, she tripped and stumbled anyway; Val had told her to hurry, and she knew better than to keep her sister waiting.

Excitement and anticipation crackled in her veins, tinged with no small amount of fear—would tonight finally be the night?

Veronyka’s breath created clouds in front of her face as she made her way back to the cabin she and Val shared. It was small and had been deserted when they’d found it, the bright blue paint peeling on its front door and the shutters broken, probably used during the warmer months for hunting and then abandoned during the rainy winter season. The weather was getting drier and hotter with each passing day, so they wouldn’t be able to stay much longer. Another home, come and gone.

As the cabin came into view, Veronyka’s insides contracted. The thick column of smoke that had been billowing from the chimney when she left was nothing more than a thin stream of ghostly wisps. They were running out of time.

She ran the last few steps, the flimsy wooden door thwacking against the stone wall as she pushed her way into the single room. All was darkness, save for the orange flicker of the glowing embers. The smell of smoke was heavy in the air, the taste of ash bitter on her tongue.

Val stood in front of the round hearth in the middle of the cabin, turning at the sound of Veronyka’s entrance. She wore an impatient, agitated expression as she snatched the basket from Veronyka’s grip and stared in at its contents.

She snorted in disapproval. “If that’s the best you can do . . . ,” she said, tossing it carelessly aside, half the bones spilling onto the packed earthen floor.

“You said to hurry,” Veronyka objected, looking around Val to see that the fire burned hot and low beneath a pile of new kindling. These weren’t the boiled or spit-blackened bones of animals, though. These were large white bones.

Human-looking bones.

Val followed her line of sight and answered the unasked question. “And still you took too long, so I went looking on my own.”

A shudder ran down Veronyka’s spine despite the heat.

She tugged at the heavy wool cloak that was wrapped around her shoulders, and her owl guide, whom she’d completely forgotten about, ruffled his feathers.

The movement drew her sister’s attention. Veronyka froze, her muscles tingling as she awaited her sister’s reaction. Would she fly off the handle, like she often did, or would she let the animal’s presence slide?

The owl twitched nervously, shifting from foot to foot under Val’s gaze. Veronyka tried to soothe him, but her own anxiety was rippling across the surface of her skin. A moment later his clawed feet dug into Veronyka’s shoulder, and he glided soundlessly out the still-open door.

Veronyka shut it behind him, taking her time before she faced her sister, dreading the argument that was sure to come. They were both animages—able to understand and communicate with animals—but they had very different views on what that meant. Val believed animals should be treated and used as tools. Compelled, controlled, dominated.

Veronyka, on the other hand, felt kinship with animals, not superiority over them.

“Loving them is weakness,” Val warned, her back to Veronyka as she crouched before the hearth. She added some of the smaller bones from Veronyka’s basket to the growing flames, piling them carefully around the sides of two smooth gray eggs, blackened and streaked with soot. They sat amid the glowing hot embers in a bed of bone and ash, tongues of fire licking up their sides.

Though Veronyka couldn’t see Val’s face, she could imagine the fervor in her eyes. Veronyka expelled a slow, somewhat exasperated breath. They’d had this conversation before.

“The Riders didn’t treat their mounts like pets to be cuddled and fawned over, Veronyka. They were warriors, phoenixaeres, and their bond wasn’t love. It was duty. Honor.”

Phoenixaeres. Even with Val’s scolding, excitement blazed in Veronyka’s heart whenever her sister spoke about Phoenix Riders—animages who’d bonded with phoenixes. The literal translation of the ancient Pyraean word was “phoenix masters,” something Val often reminded her of. Only ani-mages could become Riders, because only through their magic could they hatch, communicate with, and ride the legendary creatures.

It was all Veronyka had ever wanted. To be a Phoenix Rider like the warrior queens of old.

She wanted to soar through the sky on phoenix-back, to be fierce and brave like Lyra the Defender or Avalkyra Ashfire, the Feather-Crowned Queen.

But it had been more than sixteen years since the last Phoenix Riders had graced the Golden Empire’s skies. Most had died in the Blood War, when Avalkyra and her sister, Pheronia, were pitted against each other in a battle for the empire’s throne. The rest had been labeled traitors for turning against the empire and were hunted down and executed afterward. Practicing animal magic without registering and paying heavy taxes had been made illegal, and animages like Veronyka and Val had to live in secrecy and squalor, hiding their abilities, in constant fear of being captured and forced into servitude.

During their glory days, the Phoenix Riders were guardians above all else, and for Veronyka, even the idea of them had been a shining beacon of hope when she was growing up. Her grandmother had always promised that one day the Phoenix Riders would return. One day it would be safe to be an animage again. And when her grandmother had died, Veronyka had vowed to become one herself. She wanted to be the light in the darkness for other poor, lonely animages living in hiding. She wanted the strength and the means to fight and protect others like her and Val. The strength she hadn’t had to protect her grandmother.

Maybe the Phoenix Riders as a military order were gone, but you needed only two things if you wanted to be a phoenixaeris: animal magic and a phoenix.

Veronyka moved around Val to kneel next to the hearth. The phoenix eggs nestled there were roughly the size of her cupped hands, and their color and texture were so similar to that of natural stones that they could easily be overlooked. It was a defense mechanism, Val had said, so that phoenixes could lay their eggs in secret and leave them unguarded for years until they—or an animage—came to hatch them. The Riders often concealed eggs as well, placing secret caches inside statues and sacred spaces, but many had been destroyed by the empire during the war.

Veronyka and Val had been searching for phoenix eggs for years—in every run-down temple, abandoned Rider outpost, and forgotten building they could find. They’d traded meals for information, sold stolen goods for wagon rides, and made other transactions Val wouldn’t let her see. After their grandmother had died, Val had been determined to get them out of Aura Nova, the capital of the empire, and into Pyra—but it hadn’t been easy. Travel outside the empire after the war had been closely monitored, as many of Avalkyra Ashfire’s allies had tried to get into Pyra to avoid persecution. In the years since, with the threat of bondage or poverty under the magetax, many animages had tried to do the same. Pyra had once been a province of the empire, but it had declared its autonomy under Avalkyra Ashfire’s leadership. With the death of its Feather-Crowned Queen, it had become a lawless, somewhat dangerous place—but it was still safer for animages than the empire.

Without proper identification, Veronyka and Val hadn’t been able to cross the border. Plus, they were animages—if their magic had been discovered, they would have been put into bondage. So they’d been forced to travel within the empire, Val leading, Veronyka following. They’d slept in ditches, on rooftops, in the pouring rain and the sweltering heat. Val would disappear—sometimes for days—then return with blood on her shirt and a coin purse in her hands.

Those had been hard times, but they’d finally bribed their way onto a merchant caravan and been smuggled into Pyra, their parents’ homeland. Veronyka had been certain that, finally, their luck would change. And after several long months, it had.

Val had found two perfect phoenix eggs hidden in a crumbling temple deep in the wilderness of Pyra. One for each of them.

Just thinking about that day brought a prickle of tears to Veronyka’s eyes, a surge of emotion that she fought to keep in check. Whenever Val caught sight of Veronyka’s euphoric smile at the prospect of what they were doing, she’d meet it with cold, hard truths: Sometimes eggs didn’t hatch. Sometimes the phoenix inside chose not to bond or died during the incubation process.

Even now, Val didn’t smile or take joy in the sight of the eggs in the hearth. Their incubation was as somber as a funeral pyre.

A bone snapped in the hearth, and a cloud of ash rose up. Veronyka held her breath so she wouldn’t inhale the dead, drawing a circle on her forehead.

“Stop that,” Val snapped, seeing Veronyka’s hand and swatting it aside. Her beautiful face was a severe mask, her warm brown skin painted with black shadows and swathes of red and orange from the firelight. “Axura’s Eye should not be called for some silly superstition. That’s for peasants and fishermen, not you.”

Val was never much for religion, but Axura was the god most sacred to Pyraeans—and Phoenix Riders—so she usually let Veronyka say prayers or give thanks. Still, she hated the small superstitions, turning up her nose and pretending she and Veronyka were somehow above the local villagers and working-class people they’d lived among all their lives. They hadn’t had a proper home since they were children, and even that was a hovel in the Narrows, the poorest district of Aura Nova. Right now they were squatting on the floor of another person’s cottage. Who were they, if not peasants?

“Have you eaten?” Veronyka asked, changing the subject. Val wore that fanatical look on her face again, and heavy bags sat under her eyes. Val was only seventeen, but in her exhaustion she appeared much older. Quietly Veronyka moved away from the fire to dig through their box of food stores, which were getting dangerously low.

“I had some of the salt fish,” Val answered, her voice taking on the familiar distant tenor that came over her after too much time fire gazing.

“Val, we ran out of the fish two days ago.”

She shrugged, a jerking twitch of the shoulder, and Veronyka sighed. Val hadn’t eaten since she’d found the eggs. For all her intelligence and cunning, she often lost track of the mundane activities that made up daily life. Veronyka was the one who cooked their meals and mended their clothes, who worried about sleep and nutrition and a clean home. Val’s mind was always elsewhere—on people and places long gone, or on distant dreams and future possibilities.

As she continued to search through their stores, Veronyka unearthed an almost-empty sack of rice. They’d have to find something worth trading in the village the next day, or they’d go hungry.

“You know we won’t,” Val said, speaking into the flames.

Immediately realizing her mistake, Veronyka closed her eyes. She’d been projecting her thoughts and concerns into the open air, where anyone—where Val—could snatch them up. While their shared ability to speak into the minds of animals was fairly common—one in ten people, Val said, though it was higher in Pyra—their ability to speak into human minds was as rare as a phoenix egg. Shadowmages, they were called, and for two sisters to have the gift was even rarer. Unlike animal magic, shadow magic wasn’t hereditary, and as far as Veronyka knew, most people thought it was a myth. It existed only in old stories and epic poems, a magical ability belonging to ancient Pyraean queens and long-dead heroes.

While they had to be careful with their animal magic since it had been outlawed in the empire, they had to be extra cautious when it came to shadow magic. People in Pyra would often let animages be, but if anyone were to catch Veronyka and Val using shadow magic, they would almost certainly be turned in. For every legend of a powerful Phoenix Rider queen with an uncanny ability to tell truths from lies, there was also a cautionary tale about a dark witch who corrupted souls and controlled minds. It was mostly nonsense, Veronyka suspected, but people often rejected and distrusted things they didn’t understand. She and Val were safest if they kept their shadow magic to themselves.

Of course, that didn’t stop Val from using it on Veronyka whenever she pleased.

Guard your mind, Val said, speaking the words inside Veronyka’s head rather than out loud. Like speaking to animals, shadow magic could be used to communicate, or it could be used to influence a person’s will: to order and command. Val often used the latter to get them food or clothes or shelter, but she only ever turned shadow magic on Veronyka to communicate. As far as Veronyka knew. Still, she could see Val was tempted sometimes, when Veronyka disobeyed and refused to listen, and she could understand the danger of such a powerful ability.

“I’m making dinner,” Veronyka announced, drawing her thoughts and feelings inward and putting up mental walls to surround and protect them, just like Val had taught her. She was usually better at keeping her mind guarded, but they’d been tending the fire for two days, and in her exhaustion, her emotions were raw and close to the surface. Cooking some food would help distract her from the alternating surges of fluttering anticipation and aching dread that were in constant flux inside her. The closer they got to the moment of hatching, the more terrified she became that it would go wrong, that it would all be for nothing.

Everything rested upon those two round rocks in the fire.

Veronyka lifted their heavy clay pot and hoisted it over to the edge of the hearth, the bag of rice tucked under her arm. “We’ve still got some onions and dried meat to make broth, and . . . Val?”

Veronyka caught the scent of singed fabric. Val crouched so near the flames that the hem of her tunic was smoking, but she was still as a statue, oblivious to the heat, a steady stream of tears making tracks down her soot-smeared cheeks.

Veronyka’s heart constricted, and she looked into the flames, expecting to see cause for concern. Instead the nearest egg twitched and rattled. Veronyka held her breath. The gentle sound of hollow scraping punctuated the hiss and pop of the flames.

A font of purest, powerful hope welled up inside her chest.

She looked back at Val, asking the question—begging for the affirmation.

Val nodded, her answer barely louder than a whisper. “It’s time.”

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