I wanted this book because of the cover, because, holy crap look at that woman’s arms. I’m shallow, OK? But yes, while Touraine is incredibly hot, this is also an intense and unflinching look at colonialism and belonging.
Touraine was conscripted as a child of five into the Balladairan legions from conquered Qazāl, derogatorily called the Sands. All traces of her life before were beaten out of her – the language, the culture, her own name. By contrast, Luca is the Balladairan princess, used to a life of luxury, though she was badly injured during a childhood riding accident that causes her a great deal of pain and necessitates her using a cane. Both arrive in Qazāl on the same ship with similar goals: to solidify Balladairan rule and crush the rebellion. When Touraine stops a rebel assassination attempt, she comes to the attention of the princess, and things snowball from there. Both women must figure out what – and who – they’re willing to risk to accomplish their goals.
“It baffled her, how stupid the rebels were about the balance of power: the Qazāli had nothing. Balladaire had numbers, equipment, supplies—they were winning, had been winning for decades. Some of the Sands might miss their families, their pasts, but it would be better to stay on the Balladairan side of the conflict.”
This book doesn’t pull any punches about living under colonial rule. I can’t say I know much about French colonialism, but it reminded me strongly of reading Merzak Allouache’s Bab el-Oued, set in post-colonial Algeria, specifically a scene where a French family comes and reminisces about living in the apartment now home to an Algerian family. In this book, the roads are referred to as “rues,” they eat dishes with chickpeas and flat round bread, and the military uniforms are reminiscent of French legionnaires.
“By the sky above, she wanted to be enough.
No. More than enough. She wanted to be a queen for the histories. Someone who changed Balladaire for the better. Someone who changed the world.”
Touraine and Luca are two sides of the same coin, both trapped by into harmful patterns by what they think they want. Touraine is trying to live up to the ideal of the perfect Balladairan soldier, in hopes of one day getting promoted to better protect the Sands. Luca’s trying to live up to the memory of her father as a wise ruler and she believes the only way to force her uncle to cede the thrown is to take care of the growing rebellion in Qazāl. The truth is that both women are up against impossible odds: no matter what Touraine does she’ll never be Balladairan, and Luca’s father was an imperialist despot, hardly worthy of emulation. Touraine isn’t Qazali and isn’t Balladairan, the only people who know how she feels are her fellow Sands. But early on, after certain events, she’s separated from them and becomes part of Luca’s household. But still, the Sands the only family she knows, so when they’re threatened, she does what she has to to save them.
“The princess leaned against the door, and when Touraine was dressed in the vest and trousers, she made an appreciative sound in her throat and smirked. “It’s a crime to keep those arms of yours hidden away in an army coat.”
This book is intense, and at times I had to put it down because I was simply too emotionally involved. Luca and Touraine make a series of increasingly worse decisions in order to take care of the people they care about. The romantic pull between Luca and Touraine was… complicated. There were times I rooted for them, but most of the time I wanted smack some sense into Luca. It’s not that she isn’t trying to do right by Touraine and the Qazāli in general, but merely having good intentions doesn’t excuse the harm she’s actively causing. The power imbalance, too, gave me pause, but I’m curious to see where their relationship goes next.
“There was something like family here, even if it was the familiarity of desperation, scrounged from necessity and danger. Just like the Sands had become her family.”
Even more complicated, though, was the relationship between Touraine and her mother, Jaghotai. It’s all the pain of colonial Shālan squished down into one interpersonal relationship, and I hurt so much for the both of them. I loved Touraine’s troop of Sands, Luca’s guards, and the rebels, especially Aranen. They were all separately drawn characters with their own motivations. It took a while to get to the magic system, but I enjoyed it. And that’s my main criticism of the book: the pacing was extremely slow and uneven. It took a while to get to the meat of the book, and especially toward the end the pace was almost frenetic.
“Every time she was here, she felt helpless. Always at the mercy of some Balladairan or another, hanging from their whims. Not tonight. Tonight, she came of her own will. She didn’t want mercy. She wanted them to burn.”
Overall, this was an utterly engrossing read, and I will definitely be picking up the next in the series.
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.