Published on 5 June 2020
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Source: the author
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Driven, talented, and determined to live up to her family's fame, Sasha Nikolayeva is ballet’s crown princess. But just when Sasha lands her most prestigious role yet, she falls prey to a host of disturbing neurological symptoms that threaten to end her career and her very life. As her mind and body deteriorate, Sasha spirals into a nightmare world where beauty and cruelty exist in the same breath and villains rule from the shadows.
In the glittering, sharp-edged City of Roses, Sasha is no princess. She’s a thrall, a slave. Thousands like her suffer in cursed silence while citizens enjoy the splendor of the City, blissfully unaware that their servants are anything more than living dolls enchanted to do their bidding. But the City's slavers know the truth, and they are always watching. One misstep could cost Sasha her life—or her soul.
Even as she endures the violence and indignity of captivity, Sasha can't help being drawn to the beauty of her nightmare world and the underground rebels who offer her friendship, shelter, even love. Before Sasha can break her chains for good, she'll need to choose between the life waiting for her at home and the countless lives she could save if she stays. To choose a nightmare over her real life, her future, would be madness...but maybe a little madness is just what it takes to change the fate of a city built on lies.
Although full of magic and love and beautiful things, this work also contains depictions of violence, assault, slavery, family and animal death, and references to sexual and physical abuse. The first half in particular is quite dark.
I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Chalice and the Crown by Kassandra Flamouri is not a typical YA fantasy. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s triggering. It considers some pretty timely themes about racism, classism, and mental illness. It contains animal cruelty and sadistic villains and some pretty hardcore bigotry.
The book starts out with a young ballerina, Sasha, as she is about to take her place in the lead role of her ballet showcase. She’s privileged even more than your typical white girl because her grandmother runs the ballet studio, so she’s got connections, and ever though she works her butt off for her dance role, she knows that she’s got offers waiting for her, unlike the other dancers. She’s secure in her place in the world, and happy.
This contrasts sharply when she starts receiving vivid experiences of another world, and is slowly but surely pulled into it as a mute slave, tortured and whipped and assaulted. For a time, Sasha can cling to her ballet world, but she’s aware that in that world, her mother died of a mental illness where she was plagued by otherworldly visions, and one by one Sasha’s options are closing to her. Only ballet can save her, if she can survive long enough to help the rebellion she’s accidentally catalysed.
What I loved most about this book was the feeling it gave me of stepping into the world so different from our regular one, but still finding familiarity. Sasha develops a tight friendship with a seductive femme fatale named Sadra who would protect her with all her ability. Later on she meets the king’s bastard half-brother, Luca, and his fox companion Kirit, whom I adored. These two (three) bonds would prove to be as strong a pull on her heartstrings as her home world.
The writing was high quality, and I didn’t guess at one particular reveal right until the moment before. My only wish was that the romance was more developed – I would have liked to see Sasha and her lover actually fall in love and see their first time together, rather than not even mention that juicy part, even in passing (especially since it encompassed one of my favourite tropes, the fake relationship). One of the reasons why I love YA fic is the first experiences. I mean, obviously I can see why they fall in love, because they’re both amazing, but I didn’t really see it happen, and I would have liked to. However, this is not a romance, so I’ve made my peace with that.
I was utterly persuaded that Flamouri had extensive and relevant experience as a ballet dancer, since I found the dance scenes so convincing. I’ve read a few other dance books, and this one was by far the most immersive, even when compared to a book by an actual ballet dancer. There is a strong undercurrent of Russian among this English-language book, but I do not speak nor read Russian, so I can’t judge the accurateness of the translations. However, the switch between languages was often done subtly, and the use of Russian wasn’t limited to mostly English-speaking characters suddenly reverting to Russian just to remind us that they’re ‘Other’.
I also want to mention the bad guys: people who utterly believe that enslaving someone is not only right but good, that these slaves can’t possibly be real people. They were genuinely scary. And not just the outwardly sadistic villains, but the characters who were a little shady and you didn’t know if they were good or bad, of they would help or hinder our heroine in her fight for freedom and justice. I didn’t know who to trust.
There was a time in the middle of the book where the characters all kind of admitted temporary defeat and having to wait it out for their next move, which I found a bit disheartening. Once I pushed on from that, the conflicts ramped up, the danger and the risks and the investments continued to pay off, and it ended just how I wanted it to end, which I found very satisfying.
I enjoyed this book so much I went straight to Twitter and starting DMing the author (which I NEVER DO OK I’ve done it once before), so yes, now we are contacts on Twitter, but this hasn’t influenced my review in any way.