One of my biggest complaints about Of Fire and Stars was its lacking characterization, but that’s been turned around and now the characterization is what makes this novel such an enthralling, fulfilling read. Denna and Mare spend the beginning of the novel together, but once Denna gets the opportunity to train and get control of her fire magic with Queen Invasya of Zumorda herself, she bids Mare a heartbreaking farewell and they remain separated for most of the novel.
This will be a dealbreaker for some readers who hate to see a couple separated from each other so soon in a sequel after they got together in the previous novel, but I’ll argue that it serves them both well. Awkward, antisocial Mare is now without Denna’s diplomatic skills, so she has to learn how to make political friends, strategize, and do things in a land where her title as a princess means nothing. Zumordan people even look down on her because she lacks magical abilities. Meanwhile, Denna has to fight. Everything she learned when she was intended to be a prince’s bride means nothing to other magical competitors she’ll have to physically and magically fight when her training with the queen comes to an end. The queen herself isn’t to be trusted either once she learns of Denna’s lineage.
If the girls had stayed together in the same place, they wouldn’t have found their independence, their strengths, and themselves. When the two meet again, they do so as women who have grown up, worked out the doubts and trust issues, and are now on equal ground with one another. Denna is in control and Mare is no longer afraid of or afraid for Denna.
WHAT LEFT ME WANTING:
The strides in both Denna and Mare’s characterizations are what carries this book, which is a good thing because the plot has some incredible problems, like the introduction of a seventh god not even the prequel Inkmistress hinted at and a villain who shouldn’t even be possible considering the events and ending of the aforementioned prequel. These plot holes are large enough that I can only hope they’re exclusive to the ARC I read and they were filled in before the book was finalized and put on sale. If not, we have a problem. I can’t easily double-check this either since it all comes about at the very end of the book.
Also toward the end of the novel, Mare–who has been learning to use a sword for two months and earning every advancement she made–is gifted a magical sword that literally has spells in it to make up the gap in the wielder’s swordfighting abilities and make them fight like a master swordsman. That’s almost exactly how the sword’s magic is explained in the novel. There was admittedly no way Mare would get her swordfighting abilities up to snuff for the final battle when the novel takes place over just two months, but the sword cheapens the hard work she’s put in and makes that effort on her part feel like it wasn’t worth anything.
Though it’s equally as messy as its preceding volume in different ways, Of Ice and Shadows is a delight and an example of how to successfully improve on characterization in a sequel without breaking up the central couple or introducing new love interests. Though I still have many, many questions, this reads like the conclusion of a series and I don’t expect to get any answers. If what you need right now is joy regardless of quality, try Coulthurst’s series and read them in order by when they were released. Inkmistress is the strongest of the three overall, but they come together into a good story I won’t be forgetting any time soon.