There is a spectrum of qualities on which to judge a book. Plot, pacing, characters, conflict, action, romance, prose...the list is endless. All authors struggle in some areas while excelling in others. Renee Ahdieh is no exception. To be fair, these are the only two books of hers I've read, so the rest of her catalog might debunk this evaluation, but this review will focus specifically on her debut duology.
I originally intended to review these books separately, since that is how I have approached my series reviews in the past, but the first book's climax was so underwhelming that I decided to group them together. And therein lies my first criticism. This should have been one book. Yes, it would be long, but the length would have been justified. As it stands, The Wrath and the Dawn has a pitiful apex that left me closing the book thinking, "Is that it?" When taken as a single unit, the duology has a steady arc of growth that builds to a satisfying conclusion, with Wrath's "climax" serving as a pivotal turning point rather than a lackluster finale.
Ahdieh's characters feel skin-deep, though that is likely just a side effect of the 3rd person perspective. Tariq's chapters were my least favorite, bordering on tedious, and I found myself despising him by the end. Sharzhad was a bit too flawless for my taste, though her internal struggles with her feelings for Khalid helped redeem her enough to make me comfortable rooting for her by the end. In all, Khalid was my favorite character. I'm a sucker for a brooding love interest with a dark past.
The romance was slow-burn and satisfying, though Sharzhad and Khalid certainly won't make it into my top ships of all time. The subplots are few, but each is brought to a tidy resolution by the end. The magic that is largely absent in the first book is brought to the forefront with painterly gusto in the second. The limited action scenes didn't have much spine behind them, leaving me with a dampened sense of the story's stakes. Even the big standoff battle at the end of the second book felt phoned-in.
Where Ahdieh really excels is atmosphere. Her prose fluctuates between rudimentary and poetic, but the two are surprisingly not at odds. Through them, she weaves a rich fantasy world full of sights, smells, and flavors heavily inspired by middle-eastern culture. Her descriptions are concise yet evocative, bringing to life every decadent meal and gilded hall.
As a whole, I enjoyed these books even though they fell short for me on a few levels. The mix of arranged marriage and enemies-to-lovers satisfied some of my favorite tropes, which (if I'm being honest) is largely what kept me reading. I also found the style of magic wonderfully understated. For me, the icing on the cake was the titles. Silly though it may be, I appreciate when the title of a book has more meaning to the reader once they've finished the story. While The Wrath and the Dawn was pretty immediate in its relevance, I didn't fully grasp The Rose and the Dagger until the very end. A dark, poetic, well-constructed end, I might add. Though not my favorite read of the year, I might be revisiting Ahdieh's works in the future.
A good vacation read, but it won't change your life.