To be with his lover, the Iron Queen, Ash goes on an arduous quest to earn a soul, facing physical and mental challenges, rediscovering old flames and coming to the understanding of what it truly means to be human. Ash is the Prince of the Winter Fey who has to come to terms with his future without his love, the Iron Queen, Meghan Chase. Because the Iron Realm and the Winter Realm are incompatible with each other, Ash can never travel through the Iron Realm and Meghan can never enter the Winter Realm. In this story, the human world co-exists with the Nevernever, which is essentially the realm of the Fey. This book is the fourth book in a series that, so far, followed the exploits of Meghan Chase, a normal high school girl that one day discovers she is actually half-fey and becomes embroiled in the politics between the Summer, Winter and Iron Fey Realms, realms that traditionally are wary and hostile towards each other. In this last addition to the series, we follow Meghan's lover Ash, as he tries desperately to fulfill his promise to Meghan that he will find a way to reunite with her.
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Ash is joined by his "frenemy" Puck. Ash and Puck have a rocky history. Decades ago, they used to be close friends, but Puck did the unforgivable when one of his pranks on Ash and his girlfriend go haywire, resulting in the girlfriend's death. In anger, Ash made a binding vow that he would one day kill Puck to avenge her death. But since Ash and Puck had to work together to help Meghan fulfill her various missions in the past books of this series, Ash is reluctant to be Puck's enemy and has somewhat forgiven him. In fact, Puck accompanies Ash on his new quest to become mortal. They are also accompanied by another fey creature, a cait sith called Grimalkin (Grim). Grim agrees to help Ash find a seer that knows the path to mortality. Along the way, another fey wolf creature appears, sent by Ash's mom (the Queen of the Winter Realm). The wolf, who is literally called the Big Bad Wolf or Wolf for short, is a legendary creature that derives its power from being part of epic stories and it thinks Ash is on such a quest.
Grim leads them to a foreboding valley where the seer lives. Ash realizes that this is the very valley where, many years ago, Puck had played that prank that ended up with his girlfriend getting killed. This realization compels Ash to try to kill Puck, but he can't quite perform the killing blow. Suddenly, the seer appears. To Ash and Puck's surprise, the seer turns out to be Ariella, who is the very dead ex-girlfriend that Ash was trying to avenge a moment ago. Ariella explains that somehow she lived and that she has since been performing her duties as a seer. Ariella's re-appearance confuses Ash and he is torn between his old feelings for Ariella and his present feelings for Meghan.
Ariella tells Ash that she will help him accomplish his quest. The group must now head towards the End of the World where Ash will have to face a being called the Guardian and pass three tests to earn his soul and become mortal. The group decide to travel on the River of Dreams, a river in the Nevernever. They first travel on a raft but are attacked by sinister fey creatures called Hobyah. Everyone is knocked off their raft and end up getting washed ashore on the edges of the Deep Wyld forest. Ash reunites with Grim and Wolf however they must rescue Ariella and Puck from the Hobyahs that plan on eating them. During the rescue mission, Ash ends up getting spat on by a Hobyah, and the venom in the spit causes Ash to fall into a deep sleep.
Ash enters one of Meghan's dreams where he tells Meghan how Ariella is alive. Meghan tells Ash that maybe it's better that he be with Ariella rather than try to be with her. It is a very angst-y moment in the story. Ariella appears in the dream and the two love contenders meet each other for the first time. Ariella tells Meghan that she has to wake up in order for Ash to return to reality.
When Ash wakes up, everyone continues traversing the Deep Wyld Forest. They stumble across a forgotten town full of faded, distorted and forgotten creatures and people. They learn that there is a special ferry that often docks in the town and the group decide to wait around for the ferry. Ash and the group rest at a nearby Inn but find themselves slowly forgetting who they are and feeling weakened and drained. They realize that the forgotten people are sucking away their energy. Before they become too weak to escape, everyone gets onto the ferry and safely travel down the River of Dreams towards the End of the World.
The ferry takes them to the gate at the End of the World. They meet the Guardian who tells them that in order to enter the End of the World, they must first face a "gauntlet". Ash and the group successfully navigate through fearsome Fu dog-creatures, a riddle from a Sphinx, a harrowing walk through a tunnel of mirrors full of evil doppelgangers and finally a crowd of the desperate wraiths of past people who have failed the gauntlet.
Ash's first test is to experience how it feels to be a human without physical enhancements or magic by battling dragons-like wyverns. This test makes him feel week, clumsy and useless. His second test is to feel what it is to have a conscious. In this test, Ash faces the memories of the cruel things he's done in the past to innocent humans and fey and is forced to feel all the regrets and remorse for his actions. The final test is that Ash must feel what it is to grow old and die. In this test, he experiences years and years of a potential life with Meghan and how useless, weak and out-of-place he feels as a human living in her realm.
After the final test, the guardian pulls the rug out from under Ash's feet again by telling him that in order for him to finish the test, someone must willingly die. Ariella reveals that she knew all along that this was to be her fate and that she's willing to do this so that Ash can be happy. Puck helps Ash return to the human world, where he a bit "culture-shocked". He then immediately makes his way to the Iron Realm, where Meghan awaits him.
The story ends with Ash finding out that because Ariella was a Winter Fey, her soul was special and gave Ash the ability to potentially live forever and still retain some of his magical powers. Now he and Meghan can be together forever, as, since he is no longer a full Winter Fey, he is no longer weakened by her Iron magic.
Best part of story, including ending:
Out of all the books in the series, I actually ended up liking this one a bit more than the others. I like that this story tries to be more realistic about what life will be like for Ash when he becomes human. I did, however, feel like the ending was a cop-out, since Ash never really did become truly mortal and yet still got to be reunited with Meghan. I was also a little bit annoyed that Ash's ex-girlfriend Ariella sacrificed her life so that Ash could be with Meghan. I found that whole segment very melodramatic. The whole world doesn't revolve around you and Meghan, Ash!
Opinion about the main character:
I didn't like how this story described Ash as essentially a teenage boy with his heart on his sleeve that is easily led by petty matters of the heart despite the fact that he's been a Fey creature for centuries. I found this implausible and frustrating to read and also at odds with the regrets that Ash had to re-live in his second task - those memories showcased an Ash that was inhuman and ruthless. There wasn't a proper build-up in terms of characterization to explain why Ash would ever change from his cold, cruel ways, to fall in love with a mere mortal like Meghan. I didn't believe that Meghan was "special" enough to change a bad boy like Ash into a softie.