Title: Empress of a Thousand Skies
Author: Rhoda Belleza
Genre: YA Sci-Fi
Series: Empress of a Thousand Skies Duology
Synopsis: Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an wants vengeance.
The only surviving heir to an ancient Kalusian dynasty, Rhee has spent her life training to destroy the people who killed her family. Now, on the eve of her coronation, the time has finally come for Rhee to claim her throne – and her revenge.
Alyosha is a Wraetan who has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. Despite his popularity, Aly struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and the pressure of being perfect in the public eye.
Their paths collide with one brutal act of violence: Rhee is attacked, barely escaping with her life. Aly is blamed for her presumed murder.
The princess and her accused killer are forced to go into hiding – even as a war between planets is waged in Rhee’s name. But soon, Rhee and Aly discover that the assassination attempt is just one part of a sinister plot. Bound together by an evil that only they can stop, the two fugitives must join forces to save the galaxy. (taken from Goodreads)
I don’t know what it is about Sci-Fi but I’m just terrible when it comes to reading in that genre. It’s weird, since I love Fantasy and can easily distinguish magic systems and worlds and various races. But when it comes to Sci-Fi? My mind goes blank. Aliens, spaceships, and futuristic technology? Not my thing. Initially, I had been nervous going into this book but surprisingly enough, I loved it.
The world-building was amazing and solid. Little by little, we get to learn something new about the world in every chapter. The world was fairly easy to comprehend, even though the book didn’t go too into detail about each race and planet. It was also extremely diverse. And by diverse, I’m not just talking about those strange races with gills or fox-like features. I’m talking about actual PoC characters, explicitly described as such. The best part? They’re our main duo.
We follow the POVs of Rhiannon Ta’an and Alyosha Myraz. I really liked Rhee for her potential. She came off as childish and even selfish at times, but I enjoyed seeing her character growth. Between the two of them, Aly was definitely the more likable character, though he isn’t without his flaws. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Rhee but Aly. Where do I begin with Aly? Several issues were threaded into his narrative–issues that the world continues to face today. That’s right. Prejudice. Discrimination. Racism. Belleza did an excellent job with these issues, bringing to light the privilege that most Kalusians had, and how they had treated Aly differently just because he was from Wraeta.
The book itself is pretty fast-paced and action-packed but it was also rather short. I kind of wish it had been just a tad bit longer because damn it, I want more of this world and these characters. Definitely a great first book for those wanting to get into the genre!
This portion of the review is a slightly more in-depth discussion of the book and will contain spoilers/rants/raves. Read at your own discretion.
Let me start out by saying that this review is coming from the perspective of a first time Sci-Fi reader. I’ve always been intimated by the genre for some reason, but this book was super fun and exciting to read. The world was amazing. Okay, I’d be lying if I say that I didn’t get confused at times because I did. But really, that might be the fault of my brain’s incapability of comprehending outer space things. We got to see different planets, each with their own distinct race and culture. Fontisan. Kalusians. Wrateans. There was also religion. Kalusians, who looked up to their ancestors as their “highest power” and then the Fontisans, who believed in one god called Vodhan. Like damn, one of my favorite things in Fantasy novels is when authors incorporate religion. And not only that, but when religion actually affects how people act. I didn’t expect a Sci-Fi book to include it, so I was really glad when it did.
This book gets plus points for diversity. The main character, Rhee, is a PoC, and I believe was inspired by Filipino culture? As well as the language. Ahhh. Look. Okay look:
Sarili = self
Ahn ouck = anak = child
Taejis = tae = poop/shit
I couldn’t keep myself from squealing. It reminded me of the time I first read The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. There was a super minor Filipina character that shows up for only a couple of pages but I was thrilled to see it in a book, since I had never ever seen any of my culture/people represented in popular media. But this. Oh man, this had me so excited, I was shoving my copy in my friends’ faces, telling them about how the language had Filipino references. Just yes. Ma’tan sarili ya’ll. I couldn’t stop fangirling when I saw that. YES.
The book alternates between the POV of two characters. First up is the crown princess Rhiannon Ta’an. I liked her for the most part, but I thought she was a brat. Her priority had always been avenging the death of her family. She spent nine years being prepped to take over Kalu and yet she didn’t know her people. She wasn’t aware of what was happening in her own planet. She was naive and rather self-centered. Kalu was at the verge of war and still, all she sought was vengeance, not caring much about the Kalusians and the damage a war could cause. But the good thing is, I love character development, and in this, Rhee has so much potential. I’m looking forward to seeing her take back her throne, claim the title of Empress, and finally fight for something bigger than herself.
Alyosha is also described as a PoC. Yay. I liked him a lot but I didn’t really care for his romance with Kara. Nothing against Kara, but when the romance started showing up, I was just… meh. Many relevant social issues were brought up in the book, most notably in Aly’s storyline. Aly is a Wraetan refugee, and he constantly deals with prejudice despite being a Kalusian reality star. He points out the privilege of his co-star Vin several times, and how unfair it was that he had to be conscious of his every move, his every word while Vin could say or do anything and get away with it, all because of his race. And how Vin never understood it either because it had always been easy for him.
To rub salt in the wound, he was also framed for the murder of Rhee, and even though he had the evidence to prove his innocence, people refused to believe him. They called him a dusty. They made no effort to hide their disgust. It was frustrating. It was infuriating. And most importantly, it was so, so well done. The way his story parallels those of actual PoC in our world is fantastic.
There’s not much I can say about Kara. She appeared during the second half of the book, and I do like her somewhat but I felt her arc was lacking. I didn’t connect with her character all that much. But that epilogue. It left me really excited to see where her arc is headed in the next book.
I wish we could have seen more of Vin. I mean, Vin and Aly kicking ass together? Hell yes. I would have loved to see that. And imagine how interesting it would have been to have Vin, Aly, Kara, and Pavel all on one team. That would have been epic. Also, speaking of Pavel, he was adorable. For some reason, I imagined him as kind of a cross between Wall-E and BB-8. Oh, and Dahlen. Really liked the guy. Really wanna know about all the secrets stored in his cube. I do hope he doesn’t end up dying.
So it’s revealed later on that the true antagonist of the book is Nero. The guy is shown to be charismatic, and he uses his popularity and his platform as a media personality to gain the trust of Kalusians and manipulate them into starting a war. His power over the media means he can cover up practically anything—such as when he made Aly appear to be a criminal despite the evidence that proved otherwise. I mean, how many times have we seen this happen in real life? Media being twisted to the favor of those in power? Way more times than we probably even know.
The book is fast-paced. Each chapter was as thrilling as the last, revealing fragments of the world while giving us action-packed twists, so it’s never boring. My only problem was how each POV chapter ended with a cliffhanger, and then when we get back to that POV, some things had been skipped over. We had this one chapter that ended with Vin and Aly being pulled into Naidoz, then in Aly’s next chapter, Vin was revealed to be dead. I had to backtrack because I was confused for a moment. It also kind of pulled me out of my emotional connection with the character, so I was kind of just “eh” when I realized that Vin had actually died. Oops.
The cubes had to be my favorite part. How creepy is it to have all your memories, feelings, just everything that makes you human stored in this one cube? Not only that but those memories could be shared, replayed, taken away, or even rewritten. Freaky. But I do think that the concept could have been a bit more fleshed out. I wanted to know the details of how the cube works, what it looks like, and how it the installation process works. And I definitely would have loved to see more of the psychological damage that the cubes can cause.
Admittedly, parts of the book were predictable. Nonetheless, I was still able to enjoy the overall story despite being able to see some of the major plot twists from a mile away. I was also pretty disappointed that Aly and Rhee never actually met. I was waiting for the moment when they would finally team up and start kicking ass together but that didn’t happen.
Something I also sort of had a problem with was how convenient everything was. Aly/Rhee get into deep shit. They get bailed out. Then they get into deep shit again. Then they get bailed out. Their allies seem to always be at the right place, at the right time. There were also a couple of plot holes. Like how the hell did Tai Reyanna know that Rhee had been captured? And how did she and Fisherman know where to find Rhee? Never really got the answers to those.
Despite its flaws, the book was still extremely enjoyable. Can’t wait to get my hands on the second installment and see how Belleza wraps things up!