by Emily Skrutskie
Series: The Bloodright Trilogy #1
Also in this series: Oaths of Legacy
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication Date: April 7, 2020
Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction
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.My rating:
A young pilot risks everything to save his best friend--the man he trusts most and might even love--only to learn that he's secretly the heir to a brutal galactic empire.
Ettian Nassun's life was shattered when the merciless Umber Empire invaded. He's spent seven years putting himself back together under its rule, joining an Umber military academy and becoming the best pilot in his class. Even better, he's met Gal Veres--his exasperating and infuriatingly enticing roommate who's made the Academy feel like a new home.
But when dozens of classmates spring an assassination plot on Gal, a devastating secret comes to light: Gal is the heir to the Umber Empire. Ettian barely manages to save his best friend and flee the compromised Academy unscathed, rattled both that Gal stands to inherit the empire that broke him and that there are still people willing to fight back against Umber rule. As they piece together a way to deliver Gal safely to his throne, Ettian finds himself torn in half by an impossible choice. Does he save the man who's won his heart and trust that Gal's goodness could transform the empire? Or does he throw his lot in with the brewing rebellion and fight to take back what's rightfully theirs?
“[T]he worlds are cruel and friends are fleeting and you’ve got to hold on to the good things as tight as you can.”
Ah yes, the angst, the pining, the PTSD from watching your world burn and being rescued by the conquerors! This first came on to my radar as being, well, basically Fin/Poe fanfic, but it’s ever so much more than that. It’s a feels-laden, trope heavy (fake dating! only one bed! best friends to lovers!) exploration of colonialism through one teen’s relationships. It’s about trauma, about meeting your heroes (and enemies), and about resurrecting dead dreams – and nightmares.
“Archon is dead. It’s gone. I can’t carry it with me. The only productive thing I can do is latch on to the opportunities that rise out of the postwar reconstruction. That’s what’s kept me alive for the past seven years.”
While there’s plenty of action (wiretram fight! fancy space battles! umbrellas!), the complex characters and their relationships are what made me fall in love with this book. Ettian is stuck in a no-man’s-land between the Archon rubble and the Umber scaffolding he’s build himself back up with. Even still, he’s convinced that his only worth is in protecting Gal – Gal, who he believes will change the course of the empire when he inherits the throne. A survivor of the bombardment of Trost, Rana’s capital city and the heart of the Archon empire, Ettian spent several years on the streets before ending up in foster care. He stopped caring about what happened and excelled at being the perfect soldier – following orders and parroting back the Umber party line. While he trusts Gal – even has feelings for him – he’s never told him about what happened before the string of foster homes, never told him about the first few years after Umber defeated Archon or anything that happened before. The only Ettian Gal has ever known is the Ettian that’s been cobbled back together from the ashes, and the worst part is that he doesn’t even realize there was a before and after. Gal, after all, still believes the Umber imperial propaganda – that they were rescuing the starving Archons from mismanagement, not that what the empress really wanted was their mines to build more ships.
“It’s just the two of us. No titles. No bloodrights. Nothing but what we carry.”
And that part of the relationship is what really kept drawing me back to the book. It’s obvious how much Ettian loves Gal, and Ettian’s pining is a core piece of the book, but Ettian is such a kindhearted person that he literally feels protective of people he just met. From the first page of the book, Ettian’s covering for Gal, from remembering his lost helmet to helping him with his half-assed assignments to rescuing him (again). Gal knows that he’s asking a lot of Ettian since he drug him into this whole mess, though Ettian disagrees, and Gal does try to shield him from the consequences of their actions. But their relationship is still uneven, and maybe it’s just because we lacked Gal’s viewpoint, but I had a hard time not viewing his actions with suspicion. Does he have the strength to stand up against his parents? Is he just saying whatever Ettian wants to hear in order to secure his help? So while I had so many feels from this relationship, I’m reserving judgement on it until we get Gal’s viewpoint in the next book.
“I swear, Wen. You know what? Every person in every system is going to know your name someday. I’ll make it my personal mission. No one’s going to forget Wen Iffan again.”
And now switching gears to a character I’m not ambivalent about! Wen is my absolute favorite part of the book – my terrifying genius rainbow chaos girl. Ettian is initially baffled by her, partly due to the degree of chaos she creates around herself and partly because he recognizes she’s his mirror. Wen’s mom was originally a crime boss in the Delos slums, and when she was murdered, Wen got a job working for her mom’s replacement – and murderer. But despite doing what she needs to survive, Wen’s held on to her vengeance, and it both shames and fascinates Ettian. There’s a recurring theme through the book about what you can’t carry with you – in terms of Ettian having to let the Archon empire go because it’s too large of a trauma for him to conceptualize, in terms of how Gal and Ettian’s relationship works. Wen is the one relationship that shows that having someone who understands you, like Wen understands Ettian, makes the burden lighter and turns it into something that you can carry.
“At least I actually fight my battles,” I snap. It’s harsh, given our current situation, but Gal knows what’s in my head better than anyone, and he gives me exactly what I expect.
“And I talk my way out of them like a rational human being.”
“Couldn’t talk your way out of this?”
“That’s what I have you for.”
Besides the characters, the plot is also excellent, tightly plotted and quickly paced. I adored the world building, from the Archon Knights to the different stone/metal/gems associated with each empire to the idea of bloodright. There’s a degree of fanfic silliness to the book through lots of Easter eggs, including several Star Wars jokes (Ettian telling another pilot to “cut the chatter” being one of them), and the banter between the characters is excellent. The one place I had concerns was the rep. I’m neither a person of color nor a bisexual man, and neither is the author. I, personally, think the story and its exploration of colonialism was done well, but I do have some discomfort around that, though it’s lessened a lot by the fact that this is obviously science fiction and not wholly appropriative of a real-life culture. I don’t necessarily believe that a white person can never write a person of color, but, as American Dirt showed, there is definitely a lot more conversation needed around whose stories we’re telling and who gets to tell them.
“A junker girl.”
“Chaos incarnate, more like.” I pause. “But she’s smart. Terrifyingly, brilliantly smart one second, and then the next she’s blowing up a ship. And somehow that was smart too.”
Overall, complicated relationships and ambivalent feelings about characters and silliness and all, I loved this book, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next book!