***Thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.***
“With him at my side, we’ll always fly true.”
A young pilot risks everything to save his best friend— the man he trusts most and might even love— only to learn that he’s secretly the heir to a brutal galactic empire.
Ettian Nassun’s life was shattered when the merciless Umber Empire invaded. He’s spent seven years putting himself back together under its rule, joining an Umber military academy and becoming the best pilot in his class. Even better, he’s met Gal Veres— his exasperating and infuriatingly enticing roommate who’s made the Academy feel like a new home.
But when dozens of classmates spring an assassination plot on Gal, a devastating secret comes to light: Gal is the heir to the Umber Empire. Ettian barely manages to save his best friend and flee the compromised Academy unscathed, rattled both that Gal stands to inherit the empire that broke him and that there are still people willing to fight back against Umber rule. As they piece together a way to deliver Gal safely to his throne, Ettian finds himself torn in half by an impossible choice. Does he save the man who’s won his heart and trust that Gal’s goodness could transform the empire? Or does he throw his lot in with the brewing rebellion and fight to take back what’s rightfully theirs?
April 7, 2020
If you’re a fan of Star Wars, you may have seen this book floating around the Star Wars Twitter-sphere under the moniker “the Finnpoe book.” Emily Skrutskie actually ships Finnpoe and was inspired by their dynamic to write this space opera centered around a M/M romance. That’s what drew a lot of Finnpoe shippers to this book and what prompted me to request the ARC on Netgalley.
As a YA book, this would be average. Perhaps mediocre. But according to the author and her publisher, this is an adult book. And as an adult book, it’s bad. Not rage-inducingly awful, but poorly written and constructed. Everything is sloppy and ham-fisted, from the characters to the romance to the plot. From a debut author, I could forgive it. But this is Skrutskie’s fourth novel (albeit her first adult effort). She should know better.
The story is told in first person present tense, so Ettian’s inner conflict is constantly being shoved down the reader’s throat. Every few pages, the reader had to read about how torn Ettian is over his allegiance to the Umber Empire and the rebellion and Gal himself. It’s exhausting.
Moreover, his motivations don’t make any sense (especially when you factor in the plot twist at the end). Allegedly, everything he does is for Gal. And yet he spends 60% of the book not fully trusting Gal and even avoiding him.
The twist also necessitates that Ettian is a hypocrite. It’s also somehow both poorly foreshadowed and completely predictable. I didn’t even know that was possible to do until I read this book.
Not only does it contradict Ettian’s character, but it isn’t even satisfying payoff to his arc. Throughout the whole book, Ettian talks about his childhood dream to become a knight like the vigilantes of his youth. They were essentially superheroes. Skrutskie plants lots of hints that he could one day get his wish and then… gives him an entirely different backstory and role. I would’ve loved to see Ettian become a knight and maybe even revive the practice, but this book lives to destroy the only character arc with potential.
Gal’s character is confusing because he starts the story as a charming ne’er-do-well and then spends the bulk of the book closed off, angry, and untrusting (even of Ettian, who he supposedly trusts with his life). There’s also a bizarre emphasis on the fact that Gal is apparently capable of great evil because he has “his mother’s blood.” But just having someone’s blood running through your veins doesn’t decide your morals or personality. He’s just entitled and bratty and looking for someone to blame.
As I mentioned previously, Ettian and Gal spend the bulk of this book barely trusting or spending time with each other. This means their romance gets no development. They have good banter at the beginning and a little in the last 20%, but otherwise they have zero chemistry. Why are they in love? Who knows?
The only other main character is Wen, a chaotic girl with a half-burned face raised in a gang. Her character is fine, but her friendship with Ettian makes no sense given how it starts. Wen basically tricks him into a situation that puts he and Gal in even more danger, and yet by the end of the fallout of her con he’s willing to put his life on the line for her. Has it already forgotten he wouldn’t even be in this mess if not for Wen? I guess so.
The plot is interesting enough, but takes some really bizarre turns. Laughably, something happens toward the end of the book that renders most of the character’s decisions up until that then pointless. Presumably, it’s going to impact the rest of the series, but what a slap in the reader’s face. You made me go through all that for nothing?
But I could forgive all this to a certain extent if the author and publisher were marketing this series as YA. It certainly reads like YA. It’s not just that the characters are teenagers— that alone does not a YA novel make. It’s the simplistic writing style, the narrative style, the characterization, and the so-so development of the romance. Sure, there are YA books that do all of this well. But there are also a lot that are exactly like this book.
The narrative shies away from the ugliest parts of having your home invaded by a foreign empire, only addressing it on a very surface level. Skrutskie pays mere lip service to the trauma the citizens of the former Archon Empire have endured. In fact, nothing seems to have major consequences. Even their blasters are set to stun, never kill. Despite the fact that most of the characters are military soldiers.
The biggest sign this is a YA book in adult Sci-Fi’s clothing is the substitute swears. Skrutskie has chosen the cringiest way to keep her characters from saying “fuck.” Instead, they say “rut” or “ruttin’.” Instead of “I’m fucked,” they say “I’m humped.” I felt embarrassed just by reading those words.
Obviously, an author doesn’t have to swear in their book if they don’t want to. But using fake swear words is so early 2010s YA. Besides, “fucked” already has a family-friendly substitute: screwed. “Fucking” has “freaking and “friggin’.” Or you could just not have them swear (though “shit” doesn’t seem to be a problem for Skrutskie).
While the story does revolve around a M/M romance and both Ettian and Gal are implied to be bisexual, this novel leaves a lot to be desired in the race department. Ettian is black, but it’s unclear whether anyone else is. There are a couple (extremely) minor characters of color, but they have little to no relevance to the plot.
My main issue, however, is how Ettian describes his skin. In one scene where he’s trying to blend in, Ettian describes his skin as “darker-than-average.” I think this is only meant to imply there aren’t many other black people around (which is a problem in and of itself), but the phrasing makes it sound like white skin is average or “default” and black skin is other.
Granted, I am not black and I could be reading too much into this. But the wording just seems wrong and insensitive, if not racist.
I wanted so, so, so badly to love this book. Hell, I expected to. I love Star Wars and Finnpoe. Even though I knew this book wouldn’t and couldn’t be exactly that, I still thought it would be good. Sadly, Bonds of Brass is an even bigger letdown than The Rise of Skywalker
(which I actually loved, but I couldn’t not make that joke).
Have you read Bonds of Brass by Emily Skrutskie? What are your thoughts? Let’s discuss in the comments!