Okay, so “rein” and “reign” aren’t good puns when they’re written, because they look different, but whatever. You still got it, didn’t you? It was still obnoxious and cheesy, so I’m sticking with it.
Anyway, back to the reason we’re all here: Reign the Earth by A.C. Guaghen. A quick and dirty summary: Shalia, who has lived in the desert her whole life, marries a foreigner to foster peace between their countries. Her husband may be handsome, but there is more to him than meets the eye. She travels with him to the capital of the Bone Lands, leaving her precious desert far behind, and tries to make a life for herself while her husband works toward a genocide of all Elementae — those who can control the elements. Which is even more upsetting when she comes to terms with the fact that she, herself, is a very untrained and unstable Elementae.
Okay, so obviously the cover of this book is gorgeous and the summary piqued my interest. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I was sent a copy on NetGalley, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. I read a few chapters here and there at first, but last night I was about 20% done with the book… and by 5:00 a.m., I was 100% done, because I literally could not put the book down until I finished it. That’s how good it was.
This book was skillfully and thoughtfully plotted; it had enough action in the first half to keep you invested, but the climax (let’s call it the Big Thing, since I’m doing a spoiler-free review) was still near the end. The middle wasn’t just a bunch of fluff added in before the Big Thing; Shalia really needed to experience everything in this book in order to grow as a character. To be who she is and do what she does after the Big Thing happens. If she hadn’t witnessed and experienced everything in the first 70% or so of the book, she wouldn’t be the same character — and that’s important. A lot of YA books shy away from traumatic experiences, shy away from deep-seated character growth, so that their main character can remain basically the same. Or they include trauma, but don’t really weave it into their character. While Shalia is fundamentally the same person, with the same ideals, she goes through a lot in Reign the Earth. She changes, grows, and learns.
This isn’t a book about a naive girl who manages to hold onto her naiveté; it’s a book about an arguably naive girl who is forced to grow and change, to find a way to keep fighting for peace while accepting that those around her may not be as fundamentally good as she wants them to be. It’s also a story of a girl who tries to keep her head in the sand, but ultimately has to wake up.
A lot of online reviewers lowered their ratings because of the darker aspects of this book. I get that; it could emotionally exhausting at best and very triggering at worst. I’m diagnosed with PTSD, but I’m far enough along in my recovery process that reading this book wasn’t an issue for me (don’t get me wrong, it was an emotional ride at times, but it didn’t send me into a tailspin). Honestly, the fact that this book could get such a visceral reaction from so many people should be a testament to how well-written it is. But, for those who are curious or worried, I’ll include a list of Content Warnings at the end of this review. Be warned, if you read the content warnings you may be able to puzzle out some of the plot! Skip the CW list at the end of the review if you prefer not to know. Also, a note: Don’t be scared off by the CWs! If you feel strong enough to handle reading this book, I strongly recommend it. I loved it, dark parts and all, and Gaughen never normalizes any of the triggering subjects, which is important.
As a co-host of Fiction Forward, I also feel like I should talk about the fact that Shalia is a POC character, and she marries into a “pale” family, whose country is described as being colder than her desert home — I can pretty much assume this is a country of white people, and she is their new POC queen (did I mention she marries a king?). This could have been written really badly in so many ways, but Gaughen stays away from race relations in this book. All of the hate and prejudice is toward the Elementae’s magical abilities, and those abilities are found in every country. The hatred is mostly from Shalia’s new husband, not from every character we meet.
Shalia’s skin color is only mentioned a few times: At one point, Shalia’s brother wants to punch someone, and he tells her she’ll be surprised at how colorful bruises can be on their pale skin (as opposed to how they look on Shalia and her brother’s brown skin). The punch is called for, by the way, and doesn’t make her brother seem over-aggressive. In another part of the book, it’s mentioned that some of the people of the Bone Lands stared at her because of her darker skin while she walked through the city. It’s never mentioned whether the stares were angry, awe-struck, or any other kind of emotion, and Shalia makes several very public appearances after this in the book with no mention of her skin tone from anyone, so it seems the people got used to it. Her husband and siblings-in-law never mention it, either, which I appreciated. No one fetishized her, no one made jokes or insulted her, and no one made any snide remarks. Overall, I was really pleased that the author made the effort to make it obvious to the reader that Shalia is a POC character, but didn’t feel the need to say much else about it or bring real-world politics into her fantasy novel — especially since, from what I can see online, it seems like A.C. Gaughen isn’t a POC writer.
:: Content Warning: Emotional and briefly physical abuse, gaslighting, arranged marriage, implied r*pe, torture (not very detailed), some gore, miscarriage ::