YA Weekend: The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of Iskari
Publisher: HarperTeen (October 3, 2017)
Length: 432 pages
A good YA high fantasy is hard to find these days, which was why I became drawn to The Last Namsara as soon as I read its description. Featuring a world of magic, dragons, and rich mythology, the story follows Asha the Iskari, a princess of the realm and also its most fierce and deadly dragon slayer. But Asha also has a dark secret, her past shrouded in pain and misery. Even as a child, she’d loved the ancient stories of the Old Ones, but naïve to the danger behind their power, she inadvertently brought fire down upon her city, killing thousands. Believing it to be the only way she can atone for her sins, Asha has vowed to help her father kill Kozu, the oldest dragon. With the creature’s death, the Old Ways will be destroyed once and for all, and Asha will also be free of her arranged marriage to Jarek, the leader of the king’s armies.
It may all sound relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, but the lore and history woven into this narrative is anything but. The world of The Last Namsara is steeped in the ancient tradition of storytelling, and alongside Asha’s perspective, readers are treated to snippets of richly imagined legends and myths. Without a doubt, this was the element of the novel I loved most; from the stories that tell of the creation of the universe to the scandalous tales of corruption or forbidden love in the halls of the palace, I always looked forward to these interludes, which surprised me. Usually I am highly critical of these types of flashbacks (or any kind of break that would distract from the main plot in general), but I have to say the transitions here were done so beautifully and seamlessly that I hardly minded at all.
Of course, there’s also an interesting twist. Society was vastly different just a few generations ago, before Asha’s grandmother outlawed the old stories during her reign, declaring foreigners to be the enemies of her kingdom and dragons to be traitors to the crown. A kind of magic fell upon the land, so that even telling the old tales would make one waste away and die. For some reason though, Asha is unaffected, and thank goodness for that, because without her as our guide, taking us through her stories and teaching us more about her world, I don’t think this book would have been half so enjoyable.
Then there are the dragons, which certainly aren’t just there for show. Dragons are important in The Last Namsara, and they are also intimately and inextricably linked to the world-building. We see plenty of them in this book as the story delves into their complex history and relationship with our characters. They are powerful and ferocious, but they are also intelligent and have their own individual personalities. They even speak and enjoy listening to the stories of humans, making the dragon characters a joy to read about.
In terms of the writing, I only found out this was Kristen Ciccarelli’s debut after I finished reading. For a first novel, it’s actually very solid, if just a tad uneven in its pacing. This being such a common issue among new authors though, I no longer really find this to be a major fault. In Ciccarelli’s case, her strength is her imagination and this is apparent in the myths she creates, which is why I felt the first half of the novel was stronger than the second half, with most of the background-establishing stories clustered near the beginning. As the plot progressed, the need for these stories dropped off and we didn’t get as many of them later on in the story, which in turn took away some of the magic that initially drew me in. As alluded to before, it’s the world-building that makes this book stand out, so the story admittedly feels rather average whenever the author’s focus shifts to something else.
Still, overall I thought The Last Namsara was a good read, and it might even have been great with just a little extra polish and attention paid to the plot and characters to make them feel less generic compared to the excellent world-building. I think the potential is there for the series to grow into something more though, and I definitely want to be there when it happens, so I’ll be watching for the sequel.