My rating: I’ll go there again! (4/5)
Everything changes the day the Queen’s Guard come for Kelsea. Raised in isolation for her own protection from assassins, she must leave her guardians, her books, and her forest to become Queen of the Tearling – if she can. Immediately, she and her guards are set upon by the most famous assassins in the world, and she begins the race for her life. The danger increases as she gets to the capital city to be crowned before her uncle, the profligate, dissolute Regent, can have her killed. While the Regent is her most immediate problem, he is not the only villain – the neighboring Red Queen has her eye on Kelsea, her country, and the jewels she wears.
Kelsea is young at only nineteen, but she has been highly educated by her guardians. Compassionate and ruthless, she has all the qualities that could make her a successful Queen of the Tearling, if she can survive it. Many people depend on her: her people who are shipped into slavery every year, her Guard, the starving serfs, and a thief who calls himself the Fetch. Along the way to her throne, she receives help from the Mace, one of the most formidable warriors in her Guard. The Fetch and the Mace are two very important characters in the story, although they are both shrouded in mystery (which I hope will become more clear in the next novel!).
The fantasy world is interesting, and well-drawn, though not deeply. As with the characters, the characterization of the nations depends on tropes of good and evil: the young, innocent Good protagonist, leader of the struggling poor, desperate country and the cruel, Evil Red Queen (here, all I could think of was Alice in Wonderland), ruler of the expansionist, conquering, wealthy country. No real surprises in either the characters or the world-building. The Fetch is a mystery I’d still like to solve – there are hints in this novel of some kind of mythology or legend that I hope the next book explores.
Unfortunately, the world-building is based on foundations of our modern-day Earth, which to me felt distracting, out-of-place, and superfluous. And also lazy. It’s easy to build a world when all the components are our own. Explanations of the history of the world include a reference to the Crossing and the colonization of the world by British, American, and European settlers. To medical technology that was lost when a ship went down. It’s difficult to decipher what exactly created the world in which the story is told, and that bothered me. But more importantly, this familiar history never added anything substantial to the tale, the worldbuilding, or the plot. The dominant religion is Christianity, the same extremist, proselytizing, prejudiced type of religion that exists today. I would have liked to read more original world-building.
The court intrigue and politics lack the intricacy of some tales, but makes up for it with fast-paced adventure and danger. And potential romance. I’m waiting for that one to develop. Even though the worldbuilding lacked originality, and the characters and nation states felt familiar and somewhat two-dimensional, I did really enjoy this novel. I couldn’t put it down, and the pace never lagged. If you’re looking for a quick, adventurous, swashbuckling fantasy with hints at a future romance, this is the book for you. If you’re looking for a fantasy with original worldbuilding, intricate characters and political intrigue, check out the Lois McMaster Bujold recommendation below.
A very similar tale with a young female protagonist thrust from obscurity into danger, war, adventure, kidnapping, and eventually court intrigue and politics, Crown Duel will have you turning pages until the very last one. And then wishing for more.
With an older, weary male protagonist who becomes tutor to a strong-willed princess and battles villains and a curse, The Curse of Chalion‘s court intrigue, adventure, danger, magic and romance will satisfy a craving for a much more original and complex adventure fantasy.
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*Advance copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss