Crystal Smith’s Bloodleaf should top your fantasy must-read list


Crystal Smith’s debut novel, Bloodleaf, blends predictable tropes with a ghostly mystery, compelling politics and a likable heroine to create something that still feels fresh.

In YA fiction, the idea of a young princess forced out of her birthright who most work to reclaim her throne isn’t exactly new. So when an author actually manages to take such an oft-used trope and do it not just well, but in a way that feels fresh, it’s rather remarkable. Such is the case with Crystal Smith’s debut Bloodleaf, which works in magic, ghosts and a bit of the plot from The Goose Girl to create a story of an exiled princess that will stick with you long after the final page.

The story revolves around Aurelia, the princess of Renalt, a witch with powerful blood magic in a country where all such abilities are forbidden. Her people hate her, but have left her alive because she must wed the prince of neighboring Achelva. After she publicly uses her powers to save a life, she must flee Renalt’s official tribunal of witch hunters, in the hopes that her new family and future husband – rumored to be both unwell and cruel – will take her in.

That is, naturally, not what happens.

On her journey toward Achelva, Aurelia finds herself once again betrayed, and forced to swap identities with a previously trusted friend. Though she escapes with her life, she loses everything and must figure out how to survive as a stranger in a new land.

This is, of course, the most basic possible recap of the book’s initial plot, but just know that there are plenty of twists and turns involved. In addition to being a blood mage, Aurelia also sees the dead, a fact which adds a decidedly creepy vibe to pretty much every scene of the novel. The history of Renalt and Achelva, specifically how one kingdom came to loathe magic and the other to embrace it, is fascinating and well-plotted, all the way down to the herbs and other medicines used in the story. (Even the titular bloodleaf, an all-healing plant that can only reach its full potential when someone literally dies on top of it, is more than it seems.) The secondary characters are both diverse and intriguing, and have their own stories happening alongside Aurelia’s.

As for our heroine herself, Aurelia is something of a mixed bag, but in a way that makes perfect sense for a sheltered girl who has been hated and kept hidden for most of her life. Of course she chafes against the world she knows, and of course she has no idea how to discern who is worthy of her trust. She is often both sympathetic and frustrating, and her slow burn friendship to maybe something more with Zan is extremely appealing. (But fair warning, there’s also a sort of weird love triangle that feels as though it’s maybe being set up for the future, and I honestly…am not super here for it.)

The story of Bloodleaf generally moves at a fast and furious pace, though the first quarter of the novel really takes its time settling into things. There’s a little too much exposition in places, and the portion of the novel that takes place in Renalt drags a bit. But once things get going – and Aurelia is forced to leave – there’s no stopping the story and you’ll find it hard to put down.

Bloodleaf is apparently the first in a trilogy, a fact which I didn’t know while reading and which kind of surprised me upon discovery. While I am fascinated by the worldbuilding Smith engages in over the course of this story, it also feels a bit like Aurelia’s journey is complete. Of course, there is more life to come for her as a wife and a queen, but I don’t know that that was something I was expecting – or really needing – to see.

Where this story will go for two more novels, I have no idea. I’m curious to find out, admittedly, and certainly won’t mind seeing some or all of these characters again, but I’m not 100 percent convinced it was necessary. I think I’d be fine with this story as a standalone, with maybe other novels that take place in the same universe somehow.

However, on the whole, Bloodleaf is a great read for fans of YA fantasy, and it’s a novel you’ll likely hear your friends talking about this Spring. (But don’t let them tell you spoilers until you read it for yourself!)

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You can find Bloodleaf on bookshelves today.