In my experience, YA novels written by romance novelists generally go one of two ways: awesomely or atrociously. Now, this may not be the case for most, but, personally, I go to a romance novel and a YA novel for totally different reasons, and I don't want a romance novel from my YA; romance can (perhaps should) be a part of that, but there should be more going on than that. Thankfully, Sherry Thomas has written an absolutely amazing YA novel, bursting with fabulous characters, action, delightful writing, and a swoon-worthy romance.
Where do I even begin with what I loved when there is so much? Okay, let's start at the beginning, where we meet our stubborn, hard-working, thoughtful heroine Iolanthe. She's practicing hard to do the lighting at a wedding ceremony with her elemental magic, all to protect the job of her guardian, though he's done little to deserve it. Then in he comes, ranting and raving and reminding me of Haymitch (his name is Haywood - coincidence?). He tells her not to perform at the wedding and ruins her light elixir. Consulting a magic text, she learns a thunderbolt (or more accurately lighting bolt) can save her elixir, so she discovers some powers she never knew she had just like that. No big deal. This alerts everyone, both good and bad, to the fact that she is a seriously kick butt elemental mage, and they all want her for something.
Enter Titus: spoiled Prince or hope of the Domain. Because of a prophecy, he knows that he needs this elemental mage to help him save everyone from the tyrannical, apparently immortal ruler of Antlantis. Titus believes in the prophecy and will risk everything, including both of their lives to fulfill it. Though he's very goal-oriented, I took to Titus immediately with his spell-casting and his weird hobby of reading ladies' magazines because he finds them comforting.
Now we're getting to the really good part, namely the one where one of my favorite tropes comes in, and this really isn't a spoiler I promise, since you will guess it in the tiny prologue. Basically, to hide out from the super terrifying bad guy, Iolanthe has to go undercover at a boys' school, because Titus, misguided, assumed the mage of prophecy would be a guy, so he had a male's disguise ready. Oops. Lucky for him, Iolanthe is brilliant and totally rocks at gender bending. Why do I love this so much? Because reasons. That may have to do with the fact that there's always an adorable lgbt subtext. Like, yeah, Titus is straight, but he's totally not bothered by all the rumors that he and his friend Fairfax are actually gay lovers, which is a quality I find charming in a guy. Also, it means the heroine isn't super gorgeous all the time or fretting over her looks, and he likes her none the less for that.
Okay, so, obviously, there's a romance here, and obviously I love it. They have a total hate to love thing going, which is my favorite. They also, true to that romantic arc at it's best, excel at bantering with one another. Thomas really makes you feel the chemistry between them, and I was essentially trying to reach into the book and make them kiss all the way through. Even better, the romance doesn't follow traditional lines, Iolanthe generally being the aggressor physically and Titus the more emotionally committed. In fact, Titus totally spends a lot of time daydreaming and doing the fantasy novel equivalent of doodling her name on his notebooks, and my goodness but it's precious. Oh, and, even better, he doesn't mind letting her save him sometimes.
Leaving the romance behind, I also want to praise Sherry Thomas for how powerful women are in The Burning Sky. On both the side of good and of evil, in the past and in the present, women have achieved both high rank and high power. So often, it's just the heroine who really takes a strong female role, the better to stand out, but the Inquisitor, Helgira, and even Lady Callista are certainly to be feared and admired, in their ways. For once, this is a fantasy world in which everything isn't intensely patriarchal, even more rare in a historically-based fantasy.
What Left Me Wanting More:
My only quibbles lie in the world building, which is a bit of a pop culture hodge-podge. While this didn't detract from my enjoyment one bit, it's a bit to process and might annoy other readers with similarities to other works. For example, I was strongly reminded of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Howl's Moving Castle, and Stardust (one of the cutest scenes of that movie - and maybe book, but I don't remember - gender swapped). On top of that, I found the interweaving of our culture's fairy tales into this fantasy world rather puzzling. I guess this must be an alternate universe then? I'm not quite sure, which is sort of my point. There's a lot happening and it's all fun, but I'm left feeling a bit shaky.
The Final Verdict:
The Burning Sky kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. If you enjoy the fantasy works of Maria V. Snyder or Kristin Cashore, odds are you will appreciate Sherry Thomas' YA debut. The sequel cannot come quickly enough. In fact, I loved the romance and themes in here so much, I may even try her romance novels.