Book Review: The Last Namsara

In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

These are the legends that Asha, daughter of the king of Firgaard, has grown up learning in hushed whispers, drawn to the forbidden figures of the past. But it isn’t until she becomes the fiercest, most feared dragon slayer in the land that she takes on the role of the next Iskari—a lonely destiny that leaves her feeling more like a weapon than a girl.

Asha conquers each dragon and brings its head to the king, but no kill can free her from the shackles that await at home: her betrothal to the cruel commandant, a man who holds the truth about her nature in his palm. When she’s offered the chance to gain her freedom in exchange for the life of the most powerful dragon in Firgaard, she finds that there may be more truth to the ancient stories than she ever could have expected. With the help of a secret friend—a slave boy from her betrothed’s household—Asha must shed the layers of her Iskari bondage and open her heart to love, light, and a truth that has been kept from her.

According to Asha, royal daughter and designated Iskari, there are only two things that pose a serious threat to the kingdom of Firgaard: dragons, and the stories they love to listen to.

As the Iskari, Asha is tasked with hunting dragons. But lately, she’s been needing old stories to lure them out.

This was probably my favourite aspect of the book: the idea that dragons love stories, and that they are intelligent, curious creatures. But I have mixed feelings about the story overall.

The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli is magical and intriguing. It’s a pure YA fantasy novel in every sense of the genre, and the fantasy-lover in me was often enraptured. Chapters alternate between Asha's present-day story and the old stories that help fill gaps in Firgaard's history, which was a great framing choice that was made even better by Ciccarelli's wonderful writing style.

But the protagonist. Asha is a strong female character with a nuanced history that informs her beliefs and actions. But despite her strength, grit, and capacity to care for others, Asha ignores what's wrong about her kingdom and in some cases agrees with things that are unquestionably wrong (like, slavery!). Her cousin Safire, and her brother (and heir apparent) Dax, appear more emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and progressive than her, despite being raised in the same society under the same harsh rule. Asha has lived her life without peers or friends (and given the way she treats her only "friend," Safire, I feel like Asha's relationships are held together by familial bonds more than anything else). Despite the fact that she's not a bad person, she’s not great at thinking about others, and it’s something we as readers must struggle with throughout her character development.

But a change happens in her life, and she is thrust in a direction she never expected. Asha is betrothed to a cruel man who thinks of her as just one more thing to conquer, and her desire to break off the engagement and her desire to kill the oldest dragon in history suddenly become urgently, inescapably intertwined. But there are also other people working around her, preparing Firgaard for change, and Asha finds herself increasingly caught up with helping others—like her betrothed’s slave, Torwyn.

Yes, this story has slavery in it. Fewer things are a greater turn-off to me than a poorly handled slavery narrative, and I struggled with how I felt about the role slavery played in The Last Namsara on-and-off while reading. What I struggled with most, I think, was Asha’s slow path to wokeness—while she’s been brainwashed by her kingdom to believe slavery is okay and “necessary,” as a reader I just couldn’t sympathize with her. The few people with a presence in her life (particularly Torwyn) work so hard to show her how wrong it is, and their patience with her is so steadfast I was left dumbfounded. There were times while reading that I thought Asha did or said things that would ruin her relationships; yet they didn't.

I think a part of my struggle is also that I believe people shouldn’t have to love someone or something who is oppressed in order to realize oppression is wrong. This is something that frustrates me in real life as much as it does when it crops up in books. Why do some people need to have gay children before realizing being gay is normal and okay? Why do people have to fall in love with a person of another race to realize that racism is wrong? It’s a source of endless confusion to me and I couldn’t help think about it while reading The Last Namsara.

Change is slow, in real life and in novels. And it’s saddening and frustrating.

Because of this, I also had a love-hate relationship with the story’s romance. Sometimes I loved it—it was so well-developed and had great pacing, and the chemistry between the characters was great. But at the same time, my brain couldn't get over the fact that SLAVERY WAS A THING. My mind was actually blown over how tolerant Asha’s love interest was over her ignorance. Maybe you can chalk it up to *spoiler*, but that just isn't a good enough reason for me.

These issues didn’t necessarily ruin the experience for me; slavery is a compelling issue to tackle in a fantasy novel and it’s a tragic problem that has tough consequences for a kingdom, whether it's rectified or not. And maybe AshaxSlavery didn't bother other readers, and it's just me. Totally possible!

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The dragons, in contrast, were awesome. There were no complicated love-hate feelings in that department; they were done so well and I loved seeing how Asha's relationship with them shaped the story.

So, I by no means regret reading the book. It was on the yummier/more consumable end of the fantasy genre spectrum and it’s one of the better YA fantasies I’ve read that involve dragons. Perhaps we can chalk my frustrations up to The Last Namsara being a debut novel? I’m not sure.

If I read her future books, the biggest thing I might hope for is better character development with her supporting characters. Asha may have been fully fleshed out, but I found Asha's friends and family, as well as the villain(s),  a bit one-dimensional and at times, unconvincing. I kind of want to elaborate but I’m not sure how to without giving away any spoilers, sooooo I will keep my mouth shut! But as far as debuts go, I think Ciccarelli has done a good job and clearly has a mind for fantasy: great storytelling, pacing, world-building... all the basics are there.

The Last Namsara gets a 3.5 Stars from me.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts? Let me know!

Cheers,

Miriam