The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli. ★★★1/2
Trigger warning: sexual harassment, physical and emotional abuse
The Last Namsara is a well written YA fantasy debut. Although I found the romance subplot problematic, I would guess that this book will be a big hit.
Asha is the Iskari, the feared weapon and dragon slayer of her father the king. She believes that this is the only way she can atone for the darkness within her that led her as a child to seek out the oldest dragon of them all and almost destroy her city. But her father orders that she will not have fully redeemed herself until she marries the man who saved her from that first dragon: a cruel and power hungry general who seeks to own and subjugate her. Then her father gives her a chance to save herself: if she kills that oldest dragon and brings her father the head, then she won’t have to marry her betrothed. As Asha embarks on her desperate quest, she’ll learn that much has been hidden from her, including her own past.
I’m going to focus on the positive before discussing my issues with this book.
I love books about the power of stories, and The Last Namsara really delivered on that front. In the era of Asha’s grandmother’s rule, her society went through massive changes. Her grandmother enslaved a whole population of foreigners, made enemies of the native dragons, and banned the old stories of Asha’s people. These stories are considered to be so dangerous that a person can literally die from telling them; that’s the fate that befell Asha’s mother. Of course, there turns out to be other reasons that the ruling family would ban these stories, and Asha slowly begins to ferret out the grain of truth from the tales her mother told her.
Most of the world building of The Last Namsara comes from these old tales, and it generally works well. While reading it, I almost never felt like I wasn’t getting a clear picture or was wading through info dumps. I wouldn’t call Ciccarelli’s prose flowery, but she made it easy to visualize Asha’s world. I also interpreted Asha’s desert kingdom as having non-Western influences, although I couldn’t say a lot more than that. I also found myself wondering about the gendered power structures. The inheritance appears to be gender neutral, with women in Asha’s family sometimes becoming the reining monarch, but other signs suggest that this isn’t a gender egalitarian culture. For one, Asha’s clearly abusive fiancee and the implications that marital rape is legal. For another, while no one ever finds it odd that Asha fights, her father’s soldiers are all male. This suggests to me that aspects of the world building weren’t fully thought out.
Asha herself is a well developed protagonist. I’m always looking for female characters with rough edges and complexity, and Asha certainly has both of those traits. For much of the book, she’s more of an anti-heroine than a straight up heroine. She’s fully bought into the narrative her father has presented to her, and she’s completely complicit in the systematic oppression her society is built on.
That brings me to my main problem with The Last Namsara. It has a master/slave romance subplot.
Torwin, Asha’s love interest, is the slave of her abusive fiance. For a large part of the book, she refers to him as “slave” rather than using his name, even as she’s finding herself fascinated by and attracted to him. At various points in the book, Asha holds an ax to his throat or threatens to cut out his tongue. At the beginning, she doesn’t care if he’s thrown in a pit to die; in fact, she remarks that slaves die all the time, so why should she care?
Of course, as the book goes on she has a change of heart and realizes that (shocker) slavery is actually wrong and the enslaved people are actually people. Yet, the narrative never addressed the power imbalance between her and Torwin, and it annoys me to no end to see other reviews dismiss it because “he wasn’t her slave.” She’s still a princess of the master class, and he’s still a slave. This power dynamic should not be ignored, however hungry readers are for “forbidden romances.”
While the focus on the power of stories and Ciccarelli’s clear prose, I found that The Last Namsara centered oppressive voices instead of focusing on the oppressed. It’s already gearing up to be one of the more popular YA fantasy books of this fall, but I would have a hard time recommending it.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.