3.5 stars, originally posted at Winged Reviews.
I wanted to read this debut due to a review that said one of the main characters reminded her of a certain scarred prince
close to my heart. I also love high fantasy, pirates, assassins and eastern-influenced culture and this book had it all in spades. While the world building was phenomenal, the aforementioned main character was a complete let down. In fact, both of them were.
Ananna of the Tanarau is the only daughter and successor to a wealthy pirate clan. In order to carry on the legacy, her parents arranged for her to marry Tarrin of the Hariri, another pirate clan. Like every girl who finds herself with an arranged marriage, she felt it would crush her dreams of being the captain of her own ship. So instead of going through with it, she goes all runaway bride and takes the risk that the Hariri clan would send an assassin after her for disgracing them.
Assassins in Clarke's world are not just skilled at stealth and fighting. They are a shadowy clan of their own, feared for their use of blood magic. The threat of an assassin like Naji being sent after you usually means a certain and painful death. Fortunately, she's the main character in her own book, so instead of dying, she inadvertently kills an asp, saves Naji's life and triggers his dormant curse. Instead of being able to finish the job, he now is sworn to protect her or it will cost him his life. He even feels actual physical pain when she is in danger or hurt. Together, they travel through the vast dessert, across the ocean and mystical islands in order to find a cure.
The world building is really something else. At first glance (of the cover), it's Arabian Nights inspired, with dessert towns, marketplaces and camels. But as Ananna and Naji continue their quest, there are traces of 17th Century pirate docks and mystical island surroundings reminiscent of Doctor Moreau but with creepy plants instead of animals. There is also the shadow world, which is here, but isn't. Everything was described much better than I just did and each place they travelled through and each situation they found themselves in came alive for me. I also really enjoyed the way magic was dealt with in this book, as it and its rules fit seamleassly into the world.
As for Ananna and Naji, they fell flat. I admired Ananna's courage to defy her parents and heritage, but didn't understand her actions and motives most of the time. She was strong-willed but insecure and very stubborn in her insistence to stick with Naji. I wanted her to find her dreams, instead of being more concerned about the well-being of someone who just tried to kill her. Naji was also just as, if not more, insecure as Ananna due to the scar on his face. He was also cold and stubborn and the lack of communication from his part made me want to shake him really hard and yell. He also seemed frightfully ignorant of people's feelings and perception of him. As you can imagine, they fought constantly. Sadly, it wasn't in the "we have chemistry" way, it was just plain fighting. I really don't know why Ananna ends up developing feelings for Naji, because it came almost out of the blue.
I do have higher hopes for the second book, now that both characters have developed and formed a somewhat mutual respect for each other. I love quests, and completing three impossible tasks to cure the impossible curse will be fantastic to read about. So, a slow start, but it has the makings of a great series.