Zhara (Guardians of Dawn #1) Book Review – A below-average YA disappointment

A below-average YA disappointment

YA fiction is hard to write in a way that feels unique and exciting for an otherwise over-saturated genre. Of course you get breakaway hits like The Hunger Games or Twilight, but for every Edward Cullen or Katniss Everdeen, there’s a million more tropey, cliched hero or love interest that’s used to prop the story up.

At first glance, Zhara looks like it might fit the bill. Marketed as”Sailor Moon meets Cinder”, S Jae-Jones initially sets up her book with a premise that feels like both of these ideas blended in with R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy. Unfortunately, what we get is a tropey, cliched YA novel that fails to stand out from the masses.

Even worse, those tropes are so glaringly obvious that it causes the story to fall into a repetitive and irritating pattern where you’re desperately turning the pages waiting for characters to catch up with your own knowledge – and that’s never a good place to be in.

The world itself is quite interesting though and learning more about what’s happened in the past is a definite highlight. Our story takes place in a world where magic is forbidden. Magicians are called abominations and blamed for a plague of monsters that caused devastation 20 years before.

At the center of this magic-less world is poor orphan Jin Zhara. Between looking after her blind sister and hiding from the wrath of her alcoholic stepmother, Zhara also happens to be hiding a dark secret. She can secretly wield the power of flames.

A chance encounter with a mysterious Prince-in-hiding called Han sets the pair up on a dangerous quest of discovery, as they uncover the truth about a secret magical organization called the Guardians of Dawn. Are they really a terrorist organisation? Or is there something else going on here?

While wrestling with these questions, it would appear that the same plague that befell the land 20 years prior may be returning. In order to restore peace to the world, Zhara sets out with Han and several other supporting characters to try and save the world.

The book takes this general idea and then jumps back and forth in point of view chapters between Han and Zhara. This is an odd inclusion because the “reveal” that Han is actually a Prince is revealed to us, the reader, 50 pages into the story. Zhara doesn’t know this though. And in fact, she doesn’t find out until around 300 pages in.

There are other niggling issues beyond that though, including Zhara’s secret powers. Anyone who has picked up a YA novel or watched a YA film in the last decade will know exactly what’s going on with her… but this book makes a huge song and dance about the revelation toward the end of the story. I mentioned before that its never a good thing when your audience is ahead of the book’s characters, and Zhara does itself absolutely no favours here with multiple facets of the narrative.

Zhara also suffers from a lot of bloat too. This is a 400 page book that could easily be 200. There are some “banter-filled” chapters that depict page after page of what’s supposed to be humour and character growth, but it falls flat after hearing the same sort of exchange numerous times. There’s a desire to try and add some levity in here to keep readers engaged, but the trouble is it actually devalues the characters.

Han is the typical clumsy oaf when he’s around Zhara. He’s also a bit “away with the fairies” half the time, as he doesn’t really have any life experience at all. As for Zhara, she ends up getting into fits of giggles whenever she’s around Han or anyone beautiful, resulting her literally calling them the “Good-looking giggles”. And her character toward the end of the story hasn’t really changed in terms of values or ideals, aside from some external forces pushing her in a certain direction.

This one-note feel is something that really holds Zhara back, and it’s a shame because in many ways this could have done with a couple more re-drafts to really nail everything this book is trying to do. As a result, this is an “almost” novel.

Zhara is almost unique enough to stand out from the pack. It almost gets a good ensemble of characters together. It almost manages to add depth to its roster of characters. And it’s almost an enjoyable romp. But almost isn’t good enough in this over-saturated field. Zhara is a below-average YA fantasy and an unfortunate disappointment.

You can check out more of our book reviews here!

  • Verdict - 4/10

Leave a comment