Cassa, Alys, Newt, and Evander had a plan. It wasn’t a great one, but it would do. And then Vesper, the fifth member of their rebellious little group, betrayed them all. After a daring escape from the dungeons and death sentences, the quartet descend into the bowels of the Citadel. There in the darkest, deepest pit, they meet a man with a story that’s too good to be true. The kids have a choice to make: free the angry prisoner and he’ll destroy the Citadel or save the city by keeping the man locked up and the Council in power. But do they even have a choice at all?
The city of Eldra was once led by seers and their infallible prophecies. Without a new prophecy, the Council has no claim to power, and there hasn’t been one in ages. A century-old revolution was recently quashed and what little hope there was for change was snuffed out with the deaths of Cassa’s rebel leader parents. Each teen wants revenge on the Council for their own personal reasons, but soon they find themselves pawns in a much larger game. Every choice they make pulls them further into prophecies with ominous endings. No matter how much they try to forge their own paths, destiny—or something masquerading as destiny—keeps yanking them back. The only way to save the future is to defy their fates.
On the surface, Beneath the Citadel is an action-adventure novel that’s part heist and part teenage rebellion. But beneath its tropey top layer is a catacomb of heavy topics and social commentary. Hard truths lurk in the shadows of each word sentence, in the dark corners of each page, in the caverns of each chapter. You’ve read other YA fantasies just like this one…until suddenly you realize there’s nothing else quite like it.
Soria jumps from character to character, time period to time period. There are six POVs featured throughout, although Cassa, Alys, Evander, and Newt get the most airtime. Sometimes Soria also dips into scenes where the characters first meet or important information that had been withheld is finally revealed. Sometimes it’s frustrating, especially when the time or POV shift breaks up the action. Most of the time, however, the jumps serve the plot well.
Each member of the quartet bring something unique and vital to the story, elements that we wouldn’t get to explore as deeply without letting them take center stage from time to time. Alys is the character I connected the most to. Although I’m not fat like she is (Yay! Positive fat rep!), I am asexual/aromantic and have anxiety attacks. The way Soria describes Alys’ anxiety spells is so realistic I could feel my own heart start to race alongside hers. As for the ace/aro rep, I knew the moment I finished the book that it was #ownvoices. A quickie google search and sure enough turns out Destiny Soria is gray-romantic asexual. Alys doesn’t frame her feelings as an absence or as somehow deviant from the “norm.” She feels what she feels and doesn’t feel what she doesn’t feel. She doesn’t get the lure of sex and romance, but she understands it. It’s hard to point to any one thing that stood out, it was the overall way Soria explained Alys’ feelings toward sex and romance. It just felt different from how most non-aces describe it. More honest, perhaps? I don’t know, but I appreciated Destiny indulging in some #ownvoices. From one ace/aro to another, thank you.
Quiet and shy, Newt has low self-esteem stemming from a childhood rife with abuse. Brash and bold, Evander will do anything to protect the people he loves. Alys finds comfort in her brother’s bravery, just as Evander finds strength in his sister’s wisdom. Newt’s father betrayed Cassa’s parents to the Council and caused their deaths, and Newt hasn’t yet realized he isn’t bound to his father’s guilt and shame.
Evander and Newt form the central romance, but spend most of the book circling each other and blushing. Between Evander being bi, Newt being gay, and Alys being ace that makes Beneath the Citadel the only YA fantasy I’ve read this year where there are more queer people in the main cast than straight people.
You’ll either love or hate Cassa. I thought she was delightfully irritating, yet I can easily see why some readers might want to throttle her. She’s infuriatingly headstrong and at once inscrutable and obvious. When she makes a decision, it’s based on what is directly in front of her; she can’t strategize or plan ahead to save her life. Her parents were great leaders, legends of the rebellion whose names will be remembered for decades to come. Cassa wants to carry on in their footsteps, but she forgets they had years of practice to get where they were before their deaths. Maybe one day Cassa will be as impressive as they were, but for now she’s just a sixteen year old girl who misses her parents and can’t see the forest for the trees.
As much as Cassa hypes the rebellion, she doesn’t seem to have any clue what should replace the Council. Her vision of the post-Citadel future is hazy at best. Eldra is a capitalist society. Removing those in power won’t change the basis of government. There will always be someone in charge and there will always be social hierarchy. Were Cassa’s parents fighting against the system or fighting to improve it? Unfortunately for Cassa, they died before she could learn the difference, which leaves her a rebel without a cause, a one-woman rebellion lost to revenge.
While largely character-driven, Beneath the Citadel is also a cracking good adventure tale. Soria knows how to ramp up the tension and turn the expected into the unexpected. Whenever I assumed I knew where the story was going, she up and twisted the plot into a whole new direction. I didn’t see the ending coming, and I’m still reeling from it. The book might have been more manageable as a duology, but I enjoyed it immensely as a standalone.
A novel about corrupted and selfish power, about the voiceless speaking out demanding change, about the marginalized creating a better future in spite of a system set up to crush them, well, if that isn’t apropos of our current political climate then I don’t know what is. Beneath the Citadel was the perfect read for election season. I needed the hope it inspired in me. Cassa may be one hell of a flawed protagonist, but we could all use a little of her stubborn determination. So get out there and fight.
Beneath the Citadel is available from Amulet Books.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.