YA Weekend: Stormrise by Jillian Boehme
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: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Teen (September 24, 2019)
Length: 320 pages
I didn’t know much about Stormrise before I started reading, and less than ten pages into it, I had to pause my reading to check to see if it was a debut. Yes, this is Jillian Boehme’s first novel and I think it shows a bit in some of the cookie-cutter characterizations and overdone plot points. Still, to the author’s credit, there’s a clear effort on her part at refining a well-tread narrative to make it her own, and even though there were plenty of stumbles in the first half, a strong recovery towards the end made up for them.
In a kingdom threatened by war, a young woman training to be a Neshu combat master decides to enlist in the army to save her brother’s life. Mentally disabled, Storm would not be able to fight, so his twin Rain devises a plan to disguise herself as a boy and report in his place at the mandatory conscription for service, even though it would mean death if she was found out. In order to strengthen her disguise as well as to stop her monthly bleeds, Rain pays a visit to a mystic who runs an apothecary and purchases a powerful potion that promises to imbue her with the magic of a dragon.
On her way to meet up with the army, she meets a fellow recruit on the road named Forest the two of them become traveling companions, and then later tentmates once they reach the training camps. In spite of herself, Rain begins to develop feelings for Forest, but then realizes he is the man betrothed to her older sister Willow. As it is local tradition for marriages to be arranged, Willow has never met Forest, but Rain knows her sister had been looking forward to her nuptials before the war broke out, and it fills her with guilt. Worse, Rain’s dreams have been visited by a strange voice lately, claiming to be the dragoness Nuaga. As someone who doesn’t believe in dragons, Rain is initially skeptical but soon comes to realize that the army will need Nuaga’s help if they are to have any chance of rescuing the captured High King. But first, Rain will need to get the others in her squad to accept and trust the dragon, which will be no easy feat while trying to keep her identity and gender a secret.
The description of Stormrise claims it is inspired by Twelfth Night, but needless to say, I think what most people will think of when they read the plot summary is Mulan. It certainly doesn’t help that I recently finished The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas, an excellent Mulan retelling that begins very much the say way—with a girl training to be a warrior, who risks execution by joining the army under the identity of her twin brother. I have to say, there’s not much in the first half of Stormrise that hasn’t already been done to death, and Rain could have easily been a paint-by-numbers YA heroine. Early character development is also very unsubtle and awkward, relying mostly on telling instead of showing. The intro reeks of a desperate need for the reader to think Rain is special, simply because the character doesn’t believe in living by society’s rules and she plainly seeks to prove it by doing really obnoxious things like looking down on her sister for wanting to get married.
For what it’s worth though, I think the second half of Stormrise is much improved, and it’s not a coincidence that this is also when we get a lot of the dragon magic. I found I really enjoyed the world-building, and once enough of it had been established, that’s when the story was truly able to come into its own. The premise is still a familiar one, but Boehme manages to gradually transform it into something else entirely with the addition of dragons and their mythology. Given time, the story became quite interesting, with so much at stake and not knowing how Rain will manage to get the men in her unit to support her and Nuaga. The action scenes are also well done and adds a fair bit of excitement to the plot, though at no point did I notice any lulls, which is quite impressive considering how pacing problems are a common pitfall of debuts.
That said, overall the characters still needed more work. For one thing, it would have helped make the romance more convincing. This one is borderline insta-love, going from zero (Oh no, I think I’m crushin’) to a hundred (I love you and you are my reason for living!) in like the span of an eyeblink. The fact that Rain kept pursuing Forest even after finding out he was her sister’s fiancé also probably bothered me more than I’d like to admit. It didn’t matter that Willow had never met Forest, nor him her; that’s just not something you do to your own sister, especially when Rain knew full well how badly it would destroy her. Things worked themselves out eventually, but the resolution was too neat and still felt like a copout, not to mention it was strongly implied that Rain would be forever keeping the secret from Willow, which is just not cool.
But all in all, despite some stumbling blocks along the way, I would say Stormrise was a solid debut and I was kept thoroughly engaged for most of it. I don’t know if it hurts or helps that the premise feels so derivative, because even despite the clichés, familiarity with some of the standard YA tropes made this one a quick and entertaining read. It definitely had its moments too—flashes of originality and fascinating world-building ideas—and it’s my hope that we’ll see more examples of these in Jillian Boehme’s future work, because I think she has lots of potential.