That's the advice I would give to anyone starting this book. I ended up liking it a lot, but it took a long, long time for me to get past the first few chapters.
Sherry Thomas is an established author in the Historical Romance genre; this is her first foray into the YA fantasy genre, and I think it definitely shows. I can see it in the writing style---the book reads so much more comfortably and flows so much more smoothly when the author is writing about the Victorian England setting within the book and discussing the characters, in general. The action scenes, the scenes involving magic and the alternate universe of the magical Domain are awkwardly written, dry, and quite poorly wrought out.
Her characters are excellent; well-built, complex, without a doubt, Iolanthe and Titus are my favorite thing about this book, although I do have some minor complaints about them, which I will address in a bit. The characters---excellent, but the plot and the setting leaves a lot to be desired.
The first few chapters of the book did not leave me wanting more at all. The narration was dry, emotionless, the world-building was without context, with random magical elements thrown in that just left me frowning in confusion. I was left unsure as to the time, the place, the setting, because random terms and phrases and elements of magic were thrown at us without much context whatsoever. Some things were eventually cleared up, but the overwhelming impression I had of this book is that the world building is confusing and generic, and the plot doesn't really make a whole lot of sense. It suffers from a lot of telling, not showing.
The Plot: The very beginning is just so, so bad. Iolanthe (that's an awesome name, by the way) Seabourne, living in Little Grind-on-Woe in the magical Domain, receives some confusing messages about her destiny as one of the Great Elemental mages from her perpetually drunk guardian (Master Haywood) just before she summons some lightning from the sky to repair a batch of elixir that her guardian purposefully ruined so she wouldn't have the opportunity to use said elixir in a light show at a wedding at which she's supposed to perform, because to be involved in such a performance would summon the attention of the Big Bad Atlantis Inquisitor and expose her for the potentially Great Elemental Mage that she supposedly is.
Wait, what? Huh???? Oh, it gets better.
Prince Titus VII, Master of the Domain, is within a fairytale. He is about to kiss Sleeping Beauty when he is suddenly projected outside of The Crucible, back in his own chambers. He glances outside, sees a bright, white thunderbolt. His destiny calls. He Vaults (teleports) to Iolanthe, where all hell is breaking loose. He locks her inside a storage trunk, sends it off to god knows where (brilliant), and then teleports himself away to a nonmage realm, Victorian England, in the year 1883, where he needs to find her again. Where is that damned trunk?
WHAT. THE. HELL.
Did I say that the beginning was bad? It was bad. Luckily, it picks up a lot from there. Once both Iolanthe and Titus meet again (after she's rescued from that trunk), he finally explains what the fuck is going on. He enlists her aid, they set out to rescue the world from the Big Bad Magical Bane. There's cross-dressing. There's school sessions at Eton, there's traveling back and forth to the Domain. It's interesting, if you remain patient enough to find out.
The Characters: Really well done. Sherry Thomas writes excellent characters. It's rare that I truly, truly like the leading characters in a book, but I think both main characters are so well done. Iolanthe is a l ittle bit of a Mary Sue, but she's extremely likeable. She is not perfect. She fucks up sometimes, and does stupid things against advisement (hello, lightning bolt), but her internal conflict is so believable. Titus needs Iolanthe. She is a necessary part of the role he is to play in bringing down the Bane. He absolutely cannot do this without her help, and he enlists her aid. Well, Iolanthe is not brave.
She was a coward, but better cowardly than dead.
She's a 16 year old girl. She is scared. She has been uprooted from her home, her guardian has been arrested. She just wants her life back. This mission is going to endanger her life...she doesn't want that. Iolanthe just wants to be a normal girl, with a peaceful life. She does not want anything to do with a Grand Destiny that might spell her doom. I understand her conflict completely, and I completely relate to her.
“So a steer should head willingly to slaughter because the farmer has fed and housed it? How many would make this bargain if they only knew what would happen to them in the end? You are asking me to give up everything for a cause that isn’t mine. I don’t want to be part of any revolution. I just want to live.”
“To live like this, never knowing what it is like to be free?” His voice was tight.
“I will know nothing when I’m dead!”
It's completely reasonable. I agree with her completely. Not everyone wants a life filled with danger, and I understand her reluctance. And I also love it that despite her fear, despite her will to live, she eventually gives in to the bigger picture when she realizes what's at stake.
...could she live with never trying, just keeping herself and Master Haywood safe in some pocket of the Labyrinthine Mountains, while Mrs. Needles and countless others like her rotted in Atlantean prisons?
Could she live with herself, cowering, while the world burned?
Titus is also a really likeable character. Iolanthe is not what he expected...he expected a boy whom he has mentally named "Archer Fairfax." More specifically, he thought Iolanthe would be a boy. He has spent his life preparing for this destiny, that his dead mother has foreseen, and he expected his partner in this quest to be a boy, his platonic partner, who would be in agreement with him, who would understand him and their shared destiny. He didn't expect a beautiful, scared girl who wants nothing to do with him.
But things were supposed to be different with her—with Fairfax. They were to be comrades, their bond forged by shared dangers and a shared destiny. And now of all the people who despised him, she despised him the most.
Their initial distrust, then subsequently, the dynamics of their growing partnership is a thing of beauty. Iolanthe and Titus are an excellent pair; they work well together.
More importantly, the romance is kept to a minimum. Yes, there is romance. Both are initially rather bowled over by one another, but this insta-love fades quickly into distrust and resentment, as they both come to realize that neither are as they seem, with their conflicting purpose and need in life. I truly enjoyed their banter and their growing feelings for one another. The light romance and flirtation in this book was very well done.
My one complaint about the characters is that they are both too perfect in their actions to be realistic. Iolanthe seems to be capable of doing anything, despite her protests to the contrary. She blends in as a boy in an all-boys' school (Eton) perfectly, nobody ever suspects that she is anything but the jocular Archer Fairfax. She can play cricket with the best of the boys just by reading a book and watching the game for 5 minutes. She can perform amazing acts of magic despite never having done so before. Similarly, Titus is more James Bond than a 16-year old boy. He withstands the tortuous effects of a Truth Serum. He can perform any magical act, no matter how minor (just watch him repair some clothes and tailor them to fit Iolanthe, you'll be amazed). He can call up elemental magic as eloquently as he can magically tie a cravat on an Etonian suit. I know he's been preparing for this, but he is too seamless. He transitions from a playboy, assholeish douchebag public persona better than any Oscar winner has ever done. Titus is just too brilliant, too flawless, too good of an actor to be a believable teenaged boy.
The Setting & Plot: Neither kept my interest. The magical world and the accompanying magical system are both generic and poorly crafted. I did not get a sense of Atlantis and the Domain at all. There are magical creatures, like phoenix. Elemental mages are used for sideshow circus acts. Whee. We're supposed to believe that the Inquisitor are bad, and we're fighting the Inquisitor and the Bane because they're evil and they throw innocent people in prison? Um, no. I need more than that. The motivations of the villains in this book are poorly shown. It is too much telling, not enough showing. I need more than a one-dimensional villain to make this into a great book. As it stands, this book is good. It could have been so much better.
There are footnotes in the back of the book that gives more details about the world, but honestly...that's kind of cheating, in my opinion. You shouldn't need a glossary, footnotes, etc. to better understand the story; the background, the setting should be clearly told throughout the book. There's a way of integrating the setting into the story without the use of extraneous notes, and I didn't feel that this book accomplished that.
Recommended for fans of likeable main characters who do not mind a poorly crafted magical world.