It had potential to be a great fantasy book.
To be completely blunt and save time, I'll say this: I had high hopes for this book, especially with the promise of fantasy (and such a beautiful cover), but I was let down. I was let down hard.
It isn't really possible to discuss all I found to critique about this book without copious spoilers, so this will be Spoiler-Tastic. I do apologize in advance.
From Blood and Ash: The Gist of the Overall Story
Our story starts in what seems to be a province of a kingdom, a land called Masadonia (which, immediately, had me thinking of Macedonia, a little too close for comfort name-wise). One eighteen year old girl, Penellaphe Balfour, is the key to keeping this kingdom alive, as she is the Maiden—a title signifying a heavy religious duty. She's technically not allowed to have any close friendships, read anything other than historical or religious texts, or really do anything but be quiet, unseen, and virtually a thing of myth.
However, due to her tragic past, where she loses her parents to monsters called the Craven, which are believed to come from the evil kingdom of Atlantia that lost the War of Two Kings ages ago, she has learned how to fight from her Royal Guard, Vikter, and she also has the company of a lady, Tawny, in her day to day life. She's also adept at sneaking out of the castle, and so we find ourselves at the beginning of the book with our Maiden sneaking into what is essentially a brothel.
Penellaphe, known as Poppy by her friends, soon finds herself losing two of her loved guards and having them replaced with Hawke, a young man who is exceptionally skilled at his job and, due to being friends with the Captain of the guard, rises in rank fairly quickly. But with the enemies of the kingdom, Descenters, fighting against the near holy beings that make up the nobility, known as the Ascended, and with the Craven constantly attacking the city, it quickly becomes unsafe for Penellaphe to stay in Masadonia, and she travels for the capital, where she's to stay until her own Ascension.
She never makes it, because it turns out Hawke is actually the Dark One: Prince Casteel of Atlantia, a vampire-like being that basically tells her everything she knew is a lie and that the Ascended are the real problem, not them. Penellaphe is angry at first, but ends up buying it soon enough, and the story ends with Casteel announcing them going to his homeland to marry, because she has already fallen for this dashing (and murderous and forceful) prince-disguised-as-guard and never in a million years saw this coming.
Despite it being so painfully foreshadowed.
An Honest Review of the First FBAA Book
So, in fairness, it seems this story idea is Armentrout's first high fantasy idea. High fantasy is a difficult genre; none of it is ever created in a vacuum, and coming up with original ideas is always a struggle, because really, everything's been done at least once before. However, this story had little, if any, originality in it; the terms used for things (Dark One, vampyr, Maiden, etc.) are all pretty clearly just the same archetypes fantasy lovers will already know, with little change. The writing style also leaves much to be imagined, which, while some might enjoy this, only made it that much more difficult to place everything in scene while reading. Despite how much time we spend hanging around the castle in the first 300 pages, it seems largely up to the reader to put themselves in space and flesh it out.
And I mean it when I say 300 pages. The beginning chapter alone was about 15 pages, and outside of walking into a brothel, finding herself in a strange man (Hawke's) room, and maybe playing cards, she does little else; those 15 pages are spent dumping the knowledge of the world on the reader, which was difficult to get invested in. I kept track of when I started turning pages not because I was skimming irrelevant fluff or unnecessary descriptions of Penellaphe's movement through space and because I wanted to know what happened. I honestly found it difficult to keep reading and just forced myself to tunnel through it, as it was pretty dry despite the attempt at injecting an entirely too snarky, too modern, and too out-of-character voice for a character that was supposed to have experienced a freight train's worth of trauma. Much of this book could've been thinned, and it would've made the pacing much tighter and not made the ending feel so unnaturally fast in comparison.
Speaking of Penellaphe, the main character is almost entirely unsympathetic save for exactly one paragraph in the book, and she sometimes just acts as a mouthpiece for the moral push of the author (acting upset when someone is surprised to see that she, a woman in a society where gender roles don't allow them to learn to fight, is adept at using a weapon, which Sociology 101 would tell me is the expected reaction). It's fine to make a moral point in the book, but without nuance, it becomes preachy and self-serving, as it did in this book; there were several moments where her reaction and her thoughts about her position as the Maiden and the focus on purity was just devoid of nuance and beat the reader on the head with an incredibly one-dimensional understanding of feminism.
A lot of the story also has her waffling on making the choice that she suddenly does towards the end half of the book, which is extremely frustrating, and considering how inconsistent she is about sticking to her role--rebelling constantly in ways that are completely useless to her development but convenient to plot, such as learning how to handle a weapon and using the gift she's been told not to use--it sets up a character that doesn't really have the emotional maturity to be in the situation or station she's in. Coupled with the first person POV and writing style, which makes her seem more like a petulant high school student than the Maiden, the Chosen (a phrase that comes up extremely often in the book), it made this character nearly impossible to bear. And her love interest, despite being some 500 years old, also has the emotional maturity to match her, an eighteen year old, which makes little, if any, sense; these two characters danced around each other in a way that feels completely juvenile.
The twist in this book, with her new guard actually being the Main Antagonist/Love Interest in disguise, was also massively foreseeable, which only made it that much more frustrating to watch the main character miss every available sign and clue, and then continue to miss them when they were right in front of her face. Being in first person, we're able to spend so much time in her head, which, unfortunately, gives a lot of space to allowing her to rationalize the forward movement of the plot in her head, rather than allowing us to get there organically per the pacing. It feels unearned and unrealistic as a result. For all the time spent telling the reader that Penellaphe is smart, it truly does not come through for most of this book, because what the reader figures out on page 100, she doesn't see until basically the end. It almost had me going crazy, wondering if I was wrong, because of how much she just missed the signs.
Especially with how quickly the main character starts accepting the New Truth she's given. I understand propaganda can be a hell of a drug, and so she didn't WANT to accept what was extremely obvious about the dashing love interest from the start, but the petulant way she fights it AND the way she just starts swallowing it later, turning over all the obvious clues in her head and the things she already knows about the people who quite literally abused her all her life, is almost whiplash-inducing for the reader.
Final Thoughts on FBAA and Next Book on the List
I wish I could've enjoyed this book, as the storyline itself is a familiar and welcome one, but the delivery of it in From Blood and Ash pushed me away from it. I will not be continuing this series, and I certainly don't recommend it to anyone looking for a good romance and story of rebellion against the government.
A story that is a bit of a classic, and contains a smattering of romance while also tackling themes of a corrupt government with an actually very good twist at the end of Book 1, is Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series. I'm about to read his second novel in the series, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing where the story goes afterwards. While the romance isn't as high volume as I would like, being interested in the fantasy/romance crossover, it is still there, and it is still a good adventure story.