I've just read through the entire "Iron Fey" series in the past few days (all 4 books, including the 2 novellas) and this is my favorite! If I thought I was "Team Ash" before, "The Iron Knight" solidified it for me. Thanks to Netgalley for this ARC! Author Julie Kagawa does NOT disappoint with this book dedicated solely to everyone's favorite Ice-boy, the Winter Prince Ashallyn'darkmyr Tallyn. (I'm not usually a fan of winter but I could definitely get used to it.)
This book, the fourth official one in the series, takes us on the Winter Prince's journey from a faery in the Unseelie Court to the End of the World where he hopes to find his soul and become human. Meghan Chase, the new Iron Queen has exiled him, for his own safety breaking both their hearts in the process but he promises to find a way to become human and to return to her so they can be together. He sets out on a quest that will change his life in ways he can't imagine. (I was so caught up in this story (it woke me up at night) that I ended up skipping to the last chapter because I HAD TO KNOW what happened to Ash and Meghan and I almost NEVER do that...almost. Once I knew what was up with them, I was able to go back and actually enjoy the rest of the story.)
**SPOILER ALERT** THERE ARE A FEW SPOILERS BELOW
Puck, Ash's old friend turned archenemies invites himself along which guarantees their journey will be anything but boring. Along the way, Ash is faced with battling old demons, and a future that may not turn out the way he hopes. His frenemy relationship with Puck is also put to the test on several occasions and their old vow to kill each other is renewed, especially when Ariella returns. Yep, turns out she didn't really die all those years ago but had to stay in hiding, allowing Ash to suffer (Puck too) in order for Meghan to be able to fulfill her purpose in saving all of Nevernever. If Ariella had told Ash what was going on, he would've chosen to stay with her having never met and fallen in love with Meghan and all of the Fey would've perished eventually because he wouldn't have been there to help Meghan defeat the Iron King. (Gives meaning to the sayings "Everyone has a purpose" and "Everything happens for a reason.") She explains to him that she's always been able to see a version of the future and that he must continue on his quest to become mortal and that she will see him to the end. He struggles with all this new information quesitoning his feelings for both girls now and whether he should fulfill his promise to Meghan or not.
Grimalkin and the Wolf return to join Ash, Puck and Ariella on this quest and each bring with them varying qualities to aid him along the way. When Ash asks the Wolf why he's there, he keeps reminding him to just include him in the retelling of his journey. He also warns Ash to stay focused on his quest and to be wary of Ariella because he believes she has ulterior motives. Puck too is helpful in protecting Ash but also keeping him focused on Meghan even at his own expense. He loves her too and Ash knows this. At different times Ash questions whether or not Meghan would be better off with Puck in the long run considering if he does become human he will die but Puck will still stay the same, never aging, like Meghan. Puck also spends a good bit of time reminding Ash of their previous times together which annoys him but is ultimately strengthening their friendship.
The closer they get to the End of the World, Ash and the others are faced with battling their dark "reflections" which is similar to facing our own inner demons. They must work together to overcome many challenges and the loyally that forms, going beyond previously held prejudices is both heartwarming and hilarious at times. (I loved the exchanges between the Wolf and Grimalkin!)
Grimalkin continues to offer guidance in the form of knowing where they're headed, who to speak too and in helping Ash to see the bigger picture. When they have reached the End of the World and Ash is being put through his trials by the Guardian, the first of which has him facing all of his past mistakes, (some of which are pretty horrific) he is ready to give up. Faeries don't have consciences and therefore feel no remorse for anything they've done but part of being human is facing what we've done in our past and owning up to it. Ash is so overwhelmed by all the harm he has caused and feels he doesn't deserve to be happy so he considers giving up his quest when Grimalkin offers this advice, "Do you think your victims care now whether you live or die?" "They do not. And there is no point in obsessing about what cannot be. They are dead and you live. And if you fail this test, nothing changes. The only way to ensure that you do not become what which you despise is to finish the quest you started." "Earn your soul, knight." he called, his gray form fading into the dark. "Prove that you can learn from your mistakes. Only then can you become human."
There are two more trials Ash must endure the last of which involves his glimpse into his future. Once again he's left questioning whether or not to continue and he has to make the choice, to go forward and get his soul thus making him human or go back on his promise to Meghan. Part of his struggle is knowing that becoming human will make him physically weaker (leaving him unable to protect the ones he loves, in his eyes at least) and he discovers that regardless of how full of a life we live, all humans die alone. He wonders if life as human is really worth it - all the happiness, joy and love you experience if you only end up old and alone at the end of your life? He also don't know for sure if Meghan is still waiting for him or if she will even accept him in his humanness. Puck tries to sway him to continue but Ariella is the one who helps him make up his mind. Throughout his journey, he is reminded of their time together, the love they shared and finally comes to realize that while he will always love her, he's in love with Meghan and she's the one he wants. Ariella also helps him see that humans, while not as physically strong as the Fey are not weak like Ash believes using Meghan and all she did while her faery magic was sealed as a perfect example.
One of running themes throughout this entire series has been sacrifice, and in some cases, "ultimate" sacrifice and sadly, Ash's journey is no different. Ash is ready to receive his soul, making him human when the Guardian shares this tidbit with him, "But...something as pure as a soul cannot grow out of nothing. One final sacrifice remains, though it is not yours to make. For a soul to be born within you, a life must be given, freely and without reservation. With this unselfish act, a soul can bloom from the sacrifice of one who loves you. Without it, you will remain empty." Ash realizes then that someone has to die for him and it's almost too much for him to bear. He can't comprehend how someone could love him so much that they willingly choose to die for him so he can live...especially with all that's he's done in his past. This part of the book is truly heart wrenching for many reasons, mainly because we're so used to seeing Ash put up his icy wall of protection but at this juncture we see him completely broken. (and I thought the end of The Iron Queen was gut wrenching!)
*Personal side note* When I read this scene I was struck with how similar it is to my Christian faith because we have to face up to our past mistakes (sin), repent and accept the sacrifice that Jesus made when he died (willingly because of his overwhelming love for us) on the cross so that we can have eternal life. (I don't presume to know what faith, if any, Ms. Kagawa is or if she wrote that scene like that on purpose but it jumped out at me and I related to Ash's struggle all the more.)
This story is full of action, adventure, love and tough choices - ones that lead to the discovery of what makes one truly human. The ending wasn't exactly what I expected but I was pleased with it. I would have loved an epilogue showing the future, to see how it compared to the one Ash got a glimpse of when he was with the Guardian but then again, I could read another 4 books dedicated just to Ash, such as, "The Iron Knight - learns how to Bake Cupcakes (I would gladly teach him!), The Iron Knight - learns how to mow the Wyldwoods, The Iron Knight - learns how to drive or The Iron Knight - learns how to Twitter (I'm pretty sure he would break Twitter) :D
There are some fun extras at the end of this book, like a Survival Guide to NeverNever, a Discussion Guide and a fun Q&A with the author and some special guests.