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I have had a hell of a time writing about this trilogy. I’m forcing myself to sit down and plunk something out right now because when I find books that I love like I love these, I want to shout them from the rooftops. For some reason, in this case anything beyond nonverbal flailing has been a major challenge for me. I actually read the first two books back at the end of last year and couldn’t find the words to express my love then either. But now that the final book has been released, I’m not going to let the chance to tout them pass me by.

Maybe my writer’s block has something to do with the fact that on paper, there’s not much to set the Ruined trilogy apart from the eleventy billion other YA fantasies out there. You’ve got your standard warring kingdoms, star-crossed lovers, and bloodthirsty rulers. I think the difference is how the characters develop and how they continuously subvert stereotypes and expectations.

The first book opens with Emelina, the would-be queen of the Ruined, assassinating a rival princess in order to take her place and marry her mortal enemy, thus infiltrating the Leran kingdom that killed her parents and holds her sister captive. Cas, the guy she’s now supposed to marry, is a wide-eyed innocent princeling who hasn’t ever given much thought to the genocidal machinations of his father, the king. Em’s plan is to bide her time until she can dispatch the royal family and rescue her sister, but once she and Cas get to know each other, knocking him off doesn’t seem like such an easy proposition anymore. Of course, their cautiously budding relationship doesn’t change the fact that the Ruined, a people gifted with magical abilities, have been subjugated, tortured, and killed by Cas’s people for years, or that the Ruined have used their magic to do all of those same things to humans. One teenage fling is not going to repair the damage these warring factions have wrought on each other.

Emelina is utterly ruthless in the beginning, constantly assessing her surroundings and mentally noting objects that could be used as weapons. I think at one point she considers strangling her fiancé with the drapes? But as much as I was amused by her character then, she grows and changes so much by the end of the trilogy that I loved the mature, measured version of her even more.

Cas is always sweet, Em’s perfect romantic foil in every way. Even with all the feministy, rah-rah girl power YA out there these days, rarely is the male lead allowed to be the soft one. And I don’t mean soft in a bad way. As Emelina says, he’s “kind, thoughtful, and reasonable.” He’s a lover, not a fighter. His instinct is to resolve conflict rather than stir it up. He trusts Em immediately even though he shouldn’t. He’s the kind of person whose openness and trusting nature could be horribly exploited (and at times, they are), but he maintains this element of sweetness and innocence through to the last page.

Despite Em and Cas’s fabulous chemistry, the momentum of the book doesn’t depend just on their interactions. There is a great supporting cast that, because this is a trilogy, is given space to develop into fully realized characters in their own right. I was invested in all of them.

Basically, the Ruined trilogy is just a dang good yarn. I was sucked in from the beginning and enjoyed every minute.