YA Weekend Audio: Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao
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 (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Blood Heir Trilogy
Publisher: Listening Library (November 19, 2019)
Length: 13 hrs and 57 mins
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller
Blood Heir was initially an eARC I received from NetGalley, but after Twitter drama caused it to be delayed and reworked, I decided to request an audiobook copy to review in order to experience the novel in its final form. And well, for all the fuss surrounding it, this one actually turned out to be pretty average.
Those who know me, however, will know that “average” is not always intended as a slight. I make it no secret that adult SFF makes up the bulk of my reading diet and that I only delve into Young Adult occasionally, which has made me extremely picky about the YA books I do check out since I only put those that sound interesting enough onto my TBR. But while I think Amélie Wen Zhao has written a solid debut, one that was in fact quite enjoyable from any perspective, a part me still can’t help but feel maybe part of the time spent reworking this book could have included some structural edits and overall polishing as well, because I found the pacing to be very unstable and much of the writing to be overly dramatic.
But first, a bit about the story. Blood Heir takes us to a vaguely Russian-inspired fantasy world where exists individuals with magic who are both reviled and prized for their abilities to control the world around them. Called “Affinites”, they are heavily exploited and trafficked within the Cyrilian Empire, treated as human chattel to be bought and sold. But what nobody knows is that the empire’s 18-year-old crown princess, Anastacya Mikhailov, is an Affinite herself, a secret she guards closely by shutting herself away from the outside world. It doesn’t help that her Affinity is blood, enabling her to affect the bodies and flesh of others in horrifying ways.
Then one day, Ana’s father is murdered, and she can hide no more. With the emperor’s death pinned on her, Ana is forced to flee the palace, escaping into the outside world with no protection. Still, she is determined to find her father’s killer and clear her name, leading her to seek the aid of a crime lord named Ramson Quicktongue. To navigate the corruption of the Cyrilian Empire, she reasoned, she will need someone just as deceitful and unscrupulous. But Ramson has secrets as well, not to mention his own mission and a personal vendetta to attend to.
I will say, there were moments of absolute ingenuity in this book, especially in the first third or so. I loved the world building and the way the magic system was handled, especially Ana’s affinity to blood. And boy, were there moments where things got dark. The author did an incredible job emphasizing the horrific and extraordinary nature of Ana’s abilities, as well as the way its effects have shaped her and defined her purpose. The story here doesn’t go easy on the character, putting her through one harrowing trial after the next. It made it slightly easier to understand the early self-loathing, the constant berating of herself, and the insidious undertones of insecurity that come through in her voice and everything she does.
That said, I think the writing might have taken the angst and melodrama a bit too far. Perhaps it was because I listened to this in audio, and in this format, problems such as these tend to be far more noticeable, but the prose was often overwrought and too flowery for my tastes. This flagrant overwriting got so extreme and eyeroll-inducing at times it would snap me right out of the story, and even though I’ve found this issue to be common with a lot of debut YA novelists and not just Amélie Wen Zhao, it nevertheless cast an unfortunate damper on the experience. Compounded with the fact that pacing suffered in the middle due to some plot meandering and repetitiveness, or that it took me some time to warm up to Ramson, there were moments where I had to actively push myself to continue, which was strange because I don’t usually need much motivation when it comes to audiobooks.
Happily, I think the book’s ending made up for a lot of these issues. One only has to look at the ways both Ana and Ramson have changed by the end as compared to their earlier selves to see why. The plot also came back in a big way, with a finale that was worth waiting for despite all the bumps along the way.
Overall, I’m glad this book got published, though I have to wonder if it would have been a blip on most people’s radars if it hadn’t been for the controversy surrounding it. I enjoyed Blood Heir, but also must confess it indulges in a lot of YA fantasy tropes and contains some very typical debut hiccups like pacing issues and purple prose—things that I concede would probably not pose a problem for most readers who are not as picky as I am, or are reading this book in a non-audio format. That said, the audiobook is one I would still wholeheartedly recommend, and it is in no small part due to the fact is is narrated by the amazing and very talented Emily Woo Zeller. I’m a big fan of her work, and her mellow and dignified voice was simply perfect for this novel. I honestly don’t think she’s capable of delivering a bad performance, and once more she really hit it out of the park with this one.