I loved Bloodleaf! The title comes from a plant that plays a huge role in this book: a flower whose petals can bring someone back from the brink of death, and yet that requires someone else’s death to bloom. Crystal Smith has created a complex, compelling world where magic is very strongly linked to sacrifice, where the use of magic is a highly politicized subject that has divided nations, and where, in order to save two kingdoms, a princess disguised as a commoner must learn to harness the abilities she’s had to suppress her entire life.
I was hooked immediately by this book and couldn’t put it down. I loved Princess Aurelia, how she possessed powers she was barred from understanding and so could never quite control, and how she developed through the story into a young woman who is finally coming to terms with the incredible range of her potential. There was a subplot involving a horse that I hated, just because I hate reading about animal cruelty and death in general, but I do appreciate how every single decision the characters make have consequences. Later, this unfolds in an even more tragic way when Aurelia wields her most significant magical act at the climax of the story, and it really brings home Smith’s theme of what exactly you’d be willing to give up in order to wield magic for a greater good.
The love story between Aurelia and Zan was fun to read. I loved their chemistry together, and how they challenged each other to become better. I also liked how Smith treated Zan’s disability — it was always a factor in their adventure — at several points, Zan gets winded during a physical activity, and at a couple of moments, Aurelia uses her magic to absorb his pain into herself and so experiences it first-hand. But unlike the way disability is portrayed in other books, it’s neither a point of pity (none of the characters ever tell him how sad it is that he has to deal with that) nor is it a source of supreme heroism (no one ever treats him like a superhero for simply existing with a heart condition). Zan does experience self-doubt at times because of his condition, but significantly, Smith makes it very clear that it’s not the condition itself that causes this but rather growing up with a father who keeps berating him and putting him down for his “weakness.” I loved that about this story.
Finally, I also love how the schism between Aurelia and Zan’s nations stems from their respective society’s having a different interpretation of the same origin story. Both their nations agree that generations ago, a woman dies at the hands of one of her brothers, and that magic is somehow involved. But specifically which brother kills her, and what role magic plays in her death is in dispute, and as a result, a very different version of the story gets handed down through generations depending on which nation you’re born into. I thought this was a particularly potent metaphor for the ways in which stories define us, and the way that facts are often distorted for political goals.
Bloodleaf is a thought-provoking and entertaining book, and wonderful to lose oneself in. I loved it, and am excited about the rest of the series.
Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.