Category: Fantasy

Six of Crows

Cover image for Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugoby Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 978-1-62779-212-7

“Geels looked at Kaz as if he was finally seeing him for the first time. The boy he’d been talking to had been cocky, reckless, easily amused, but not frightening—not really. Now the monster was here, dead-eyed and unafraid. Kaz Brekker was gone, and Dirtyhands had come to see the rough work done.”

Kerch is a land that worships gold and industry, and in this the slum rats of the Barrel are no different from the more supposedly more upstanding merchers of Ketterdam. Kaz Brekker has spent years building up the Dregs gang from nothing, creating the Crow Club, and laying a territorial claim to Fifth Harbour. With such a ruthless reputation, it is no surprise that a mercher might approach him with an unusual job, one that cannot be entrusted to just anyone. A Shu scientist has been captured by the Fjerdans, and is being held in the impregnable Ice Court. He holds the knowledge of a new drug, jurda parem, which can take Grisha power from miraculous to unimaginable, with terrible consequences, both for the Grisha, and for the world market. Kaz assembles a crew of his best pickpockets and thieves to travel to Fjerda during the Hringkalla festival, and attempt the impossible—breach the Ice Court, and extract Bo Yul-Bayur, before anyone else gets to him.

Kaz’s crew consists of six players, including himself. Inej, a Suli girl whose indenture to the Menagerie brothel was bought out by the Dregs thanks to her skills as an acrobat. Nina, a Grisha Heartrender stranded in Ketterdam by the Ravkan Civil War. Matthias, a disgraced Fjerdan druskelle—witch hunter—serving time in a Kerch prison thanks to Nina. Jesper, a Zemeni gunman with a dangerous fondness for gambling. And Wylan, a runaway mercher’s son with a talent for blowing things up.  Together, they might just have the right combination of talent and desperation to get the job done. All of the characters are teens, though they mainly read as much older, even accounting for their rough lives. However, this doesn’t particularly detract from the story.

Six of Crows is an extremely well-paced story, balanced between the past and the present, as well as action and character development. The present focuses on the heist, and how the group will extract Bo Yul-Bayur from Fjerda’s Ice Court. But Bardugo also carefully measures out backstory, slowly revealing how the boy Kaz Reitveld became the Barrel lieutenant Kaz “Dirtyhands” Brekker. Character development is married to plot development, as Nina and Matthias’ history plays a critical role, and leads to an unlikely alliance. We find out why Matthias was in Hellgate Prison, and how he got there. Before the crew can even head to Fjerda, they must break Matthias out of Hellgate, and convince him to betray his country and help them with the heist. Which might be somewhat difficult since he vowed to kill Nina Zenik if he ever escaped.

Six of Crows also represents an excellent continued development of the Grishaverse. Bardugo uses and expands the world she already built in her Grisha Trilogy, but this adventure takes an entirely different direction; it is a heist story in contrast to Alina’s epic. While most of the characters in the original trilogy were Grisha, here the cast represents a wider range of more diverse folk. Nina is decidedly not skinny, Kaz walks with a limp and uses a cane, Jesper and Wylan are queer, and Inej and Jesper are people of colour. They come from different countries and upbringings, and have very different dreams for what they will do with their share of the 30 million kruge haul.

Six of Crows also contains ample romance. Nina and Matthias have a fiery chemistry belied by their mortal enemy status. Inej secretly hopes that Kaz might one day return her feelings, while also doubting whether forming a relationship with him would be a good idea, or if he is even capable of such a thing. The cutest flirtation belongs to Jesper and Wylan, who only finally come around to directly acknowledging their interest in the heat of the heist, when plans have gone off the rails, and everyone is improvising. Wylan is the only one of the main six who is not a point of view character, and we do not get flashbacks for him or Jesper, but I hope their story will be further developed in Crooked Kingdom, which I cannot wait to read.

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You might also like An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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Revenant Winds

Cover image for Revenant Winds by Mitchell Hogan by Mitchell Hogan

ISBN 9781548051952

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title courtesy of the author.

Millennia ago, the demon Nysrog was defeated and sent back to the hell from which he arose. But some of his followers survived, and now the Tainted Cabal may be stirring. While society at large has forgotten the devastation of that final battle, the churches and the sorcerers remember, and will do anything to prevent Nysrog from rising again. When an ancient ruin is uncovered near a northern settlement, the Church of Menselas and the Church of the Lady Sylva Kalisia form an uneasy alliance to protect the villagers from the stream of Dead Eyes unleashed by the breach of the ruin. But each member of the party has their own secrets and motivations that may endanger the mission, and perhaps the world itself.

I got off to a bit of a rough start with this novel, which opens in the perspective of Niklaus, the Chosen Sword of the goddess known as the Lady Sylva Kalisia. Niklaus has served the goddess for centuries, and dreams of becoming a god himself so that he can join her as her consort. His sexual motivations are extremely skeevy, and I didn’t particularly enjoy being in his point of view. Fortunately, Niklaus is only one of many narrative perspectives in the story, so I didn’t have to be constantly in his head, up close and personal with his sexual fantasies, which might have been a deal breaker.

The other dominant point of view belongs to Aldric Kermoran, who is both touched by the god Menselas, and is also a sorcerer, though his church tends to shun sorcery, and view him as cursed. He dreams of being a healer, but he is frequently tasked with the Church’s dirtier deeds, and worries he will never be allowed to settle down and hone his craft. His ability as a sorcerer has been hampered by the Church’s teachings, as he believes he should only use his dawn-tide power, and shun the dusk-tide, even though almost all powerful sorcery requires the use of both. However, meeting the sorcerer Soki in Caronath causes him to begin questioning this divide. Though obviously a master of her massive dusk-tide power, the more Aldric gets to know Soki, the more sure he is that she is not evil. And he may need his dusk-tide power in order to survive what is to come.

The odd woman out is Kurio, a nobleman’s daughter who escaped an abusive home life, and survives on her wits and thievery in Caronath’s underworld. Though her perspective is present from early on, Kurio’s exact relationship to the rest of the story is unclear for much of the book. Obviously she is on a collision course with the main narrative, but how precisely she fits in is slowly pieced together. Her journey begins when she is hired to steal a magical artefact that turns out to be more trouble than it was worth.

One of Hogan’s great strengths as a writer, as I noted in my reviews of his previous book, Blood of Innocents, is his ability to build his narratives around groups of characters who are bound together by a common cause, yet have a turbulent alliance that could collapse at any moment. Niklaus and Aldric’s churches do not traditionally get along, and the two men could not be more different. Joining their group is Valeria, a high priestess of Sylva Kalisia, who resents Niklaus’ position in the church. Two mercenaries seem to be driven mostly by a desire for treasure and adventure, while Razmus and his sorcerer daughter Priska are at odds with one another. Priska is torn between interest in learning more about Valeria’s church, and learning to better master her sorcery from Sokhelle, who is a powerful sorcerer in her own right, as well as Aldric’s not-so-secret love interest.

Revenant Winds also features an interesting interplay between magic systems. First we have the sorcerers, whose magic is based on mathematical calculations, and the power of sunrise and sunset. The god-touched require no such devices, but their powers are much more limited in scope, depending on the aspects of their god or goddess. Aldric can use his god’s power to heal, while Valeria can call upon her goddess to inflict pain. Finally, there seems to be a third type of power, demon magic, distinct from the other two types of power. The demonic power is less explored in this volume, since the demons are largely hiding in the shadows, but look set to play a larger role in future installments.

Revenant Winds is a strong series starter with interesting characters, an intriguing magic system, and ample room for more world-building as the story continues. Unfortunately for me, my favourite character looks to be dead heading into book two, but that isn’t going to stop me from awaiting the next installment in the series.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)

Cover image for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9203-9

“Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.”

Once upon a time, twins Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott opened a trunk in their attic, and found an impossible staircase that led down, down, down, to a magical world called The Moors. A world where Jack didn’t have to be the perfect girly girl for her mother, and Jill didn’t have to be the sports-loving tomboy standing in for an absent son. But still a world where they would have to be polar opposites in a different way, choosing between The Master and Dr. Bleak, the vampire, and the mad scientist. If they still have one thing in common, it is that they want to stay on the Moors forever. But we all know that doorways come calling when you least expect them.

Every Heart a Doorway was a fan favourite last year, and went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novella. I’ve seen very few complaints about it, but I do remember some laments about the fact that it was not in fact a portal fantasy, but rather the aftermath of one. Down Among the Sticks and Bones scratches that itch, while also further developing Jack and Jill’s backstory, and how they got to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Getting a better look at their family background is particularly enlightening, and indeed proves to be a main theme of the novella.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is very much about relationships between parents and their children, the delicate balance of hopes and expectations, and how easily children can be suffocated beneath them. “It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own,” writes McGuire, in the voice of someone who clearly remembers. This dynamic not only warps Jack and Jill’s characters, but also their relationship with one another. The Moors is the first place where they can define their own siblinghood, beyond the parameters their parents set out for them, but they find that they don’t really know how. And of course, part of adulthood is defining oneself beyond the boundaries of your family of origin.

If there is one thing to lament about Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it is that the story ends before Jack and Jill arrive at Eleanor West’s school. We don’t get to see their early days there, and nor do we learn more about the interesting system of worlds McGuire has set up. But more will no doubt be revealed with Beneath the Sugar Sky, due out in January 2018.

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You might also like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Cursed Queen (The Impostor Queen #2)

by Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4193-3

“Thyra is not an eager fighter like I am, but when she commits, she is a thing of absolute, cutting beauty, and I hunger for the sight.”

Taken as a raid prize as a child, and passed from tribe to tribe, Ansa has no idea of her origins, but she has made a place for herself among the Krigere, earning her rank as a warrior with blood and plunder. She is loyal to her chieftain, Lars, and most of all, to his daughter and heir, Thyra. Spurred by the victory Lars’ brother has won over the city of Vasterut, the Krigere set their eyes on crossing the Torden to conquer Kupari. No one truly believed the Kupari witch queen was anything other than a myth until she called down the storm that destroyed the Krigere fleet. Ansa and Thyra are among the few survivors, and Thyra will need Ansa more than ever as she fights to unite the Krigere under her leadership, even as she must convince them that they will need to change their way of life in order to survive. But with her dying breath, the witch queen cursed Ansa with ice and fire that threaten to devour her, or turn her into a weapon against the people she has claimed as her own. Her loyalty will be tested at every turn as she tries to control the curse or find a way to rid herself of it forever.

Sarah Fine’s companion novel to The Imposter Queen largely takes place simultaneous to the events in the first volume. The first three-quarters of the book retreads the same timeline, from the battle on the Motherlake/Torden and through to the fight for the Temple on the Rock. The last hundred pages of The Cursed Queen continues on past the end of the first book to set Elli and Ansa on a collision course. Known as the Soturi to the Kupari people in The Imposter Queen, they call themselves the Krigere. They largely appear as a typical invading barbarian race in the first novel, but here Sarah Fine takes the unusual step of turning to their perspective for the second installment in her series. The Krigere are divided into two groups; the warriors and the andeners. The warriors are the leaders, and they protect the andeners and go out raiding to provide for those under their care. The andeners in turn supply the warriors, crafting and repairing weapons, maintaining the camp, and caring for the children while the warriors are away raiding. Each group relies on the other for survival.

Fine sets up an interesting cultural dynamic with this system of raiders and andeners. The warriors are both men and women, and after their first raiding season, they are generally expected to make a partnership with an andener. The partner may be either male or female; what is unheard of among the Krigere is for a warrior to partner with another warrior. This poses a problem for Ansa, who is in love with Thyra. In order for them to be together, one of them would have to give up warrior status. Ansa is the natural fighter of the two of them, but the Chieftain must be a warrior. Thus Sarah Fine creates a conflict that keeps the two apart which is rooted in the Krigere culture, but does not rely on either sexism or homophobia, which I found refreshing. The situation only grows more complex when Thyra becomes Chieftain, and begins proposing changes to the Krigere way of life that Ansa has adopted so thoroughly as her own. Lars’ brother Nisse hews more closely to the old ways which Ansa has been taught to uphold, but what she does not see at first is that he values andenders for little more than their reproductive function, to replenish their diminished fighting force.

The Cursed Queen is related from Ansa’s point of view, and unfortunately I found myself more interested in getting Thyra’s perspective. Ansa has a hot temper and is always ready to fight to try to solve any problem that comes her way. Thyra is a skilled fighter, but one who prefers to think first, and pursue other options before drawing blood, so I was able to relate to her more of the two. Ansa’s confusion and divided loyalties are completely understandable, but as a result her relationship with Thyra becomes so antagonistic over the course of the book that it was hard for me to imagine them making up and getting together. I think this will need to be addressed in the final volume in order for me to really get aboard this ship. However, I am still very interested to see how Sarah Fine will bring Elli and Ansa together in The True Queen, due in in Spring 2018.

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You might also like Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

The Impostor Queen

Cover image for The Impostor Queenby Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4190-2

“When the magic leaves our current queen and enters you, Elli, you will become the most powerful Valtia who has ever existed.”

For three hundred years the Valtias have ruled the Kupari from the Temple on the Rock, the only wielders of the unique Kupari magic who can balance both fire and ice. The Valtia uses her magic to protect and shelter her people, but the magic exacts a terrible price, and these girl-queens die young, bodies devoured by their own terrible power. Elli has been raised in the Temple as the Saadella, heir to the Valtia, schooled in service to the Kupari people, prepared to receive the magic when the current Valtia dies. Yet despite the fact that Elli is prophesied to be the most powerful Valtia who ever lived, when her predecessor dies, the magic does not enter her, leaving the Kupari vulnerable to the increasingly hostile raids of the neighouring Soturi. Exiled to the Outlands, Elli takes shelter with a group of bandits who defy the rules of the Temple, and refuse to turn their magic wielders over to the Temple Elders. For the first time, Elli has a reason to question the order under which she was raised, bringing to light the terrible abuses of the very system which she was sworn to uphold.

The opening of the book drops the reader into Elli’s day to day life as the Saadella, a relatively slow-paced sequence that allows Sarah Fine to lay out fascinating hints about the world in which the story takes place. Elli’s point of view is naïve, but there are hints early on that all is not well with the Valtia system of rule. In general, Fine spends a lot of time on the characters and the world, and the plot doesn’t truly pick up until the outlanders begin to question Elli’s appearance in their midst, and the unusual changes her presence seems to invoke in magic wielders, such as Oskar, a brooding ice-wielder who would prefer to deny his magic, despite suffering from the consequences. However, patience with this slow approach is rewarded as the truth about the Valtias begins to come to light.

Elli is sixteen when the story opens, just as rumours begin to swirl that the current Valtia is weakening, and may soon pass her power to her heir. Elli has had a sheltered upbringing in the Temple, where she must be kept safe and pure so that she is a fit vessel to receive the Valtia’s magic when the time comes. She is even kept largely separate from the Valtia, who must devote most of her time and energy to serving her people, and maintaining the balance of her magic. Elli is instead educated for her future role by the Elders of the Temple, who put off many of her most pressing questions with the excuse that she must be kept pure. As a result, Elli is a rather immature sixteen, never having had to dress or fend for herself a day in her life until she faces her exile. All she has going for her is a deeply inculcated sense of duty, which translates into a strong work ethic when she joins the community of Outland bandits who have rejected the demands of the Temple.

As Elli begins to understand why the Valtia’s magic didn’t pass to her, she finds herself caught between prophecy and free will. The stars indeed foretold her birth, but the Elders of the Temple were not in possession of the entire prophecy. With so much already decided, it is hard for Elli to believe that she can wield what little power and knowledge she does possess to shape her fate, let alone the destiny of the Kupari. Having lived a life with little control over anything, Elli is torn between her habit of accepting her fate, and the desire to finally seize control of her own path, even as others continue to be determined to choose for her. The curiosity that the Elders ruthlessly supressed in her as Saadella comes roaring to the fore, but her questioning nature does not fit in among many of the Outlanders either, especially Sig, the fire-wielder who would prefer decisive action against the Temple at any cost.

I was engrossed by the slowly peeled back layers of the world and magic system that are unveiled as Elli sheds her sheltered upbringing and begins to understand something about the history of the Kupari magic. Although Elli was understandably immature, I enjoyed her character development as she came to terms with having the future she always expected ripped away, and then grappling with the fact that people still want to control her, and how easy it would be to let them. She is also daunted by a potential romance, after expecting to live a life of chastity in service to the Kupari people. I look forward to seeing how Sarah Fine complements this with her companion novel, The Cursed Queen, and then brings the series together with the conclusion that is due out in 2018.

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Also by Sarah Fine:
Of Metal and Wishes 

The Fate of the Tearling (Queen of the Tearling #3)

Cover image for The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansenby Erika Johansen

978-0-06229042-7

“For three long centuries the Fetch had watched William Tear’s dream sink further and further into the mire. No one in the Tearling could even see Tear’s better world any longer, let alone muster the courage to dig for it.”

By handing over the Tear sapphires to the Red Queen, Kelsea has bought a reprieve in the war with Mortmesne, but at a terrible price. She is taken captive, and imprisoned in a dungeon beneath the Palais in Desmesne. With her hold on her kingdom slipping, the Red Queen is desperate to master the magic of the sapphires before the dark threat from the Fairwitch sweeps her off her throne. The Mace is left in charge of New London, torn between his duty to rescue Kelsea as head of the Queen’s Guard, and his responsibility to rule Tear as her Regent. He cannot leave Kelsea imprisoned, but sensing an opportunity, the Arvath is attempting to wrest power from the crown, and Lazarus must move on two fronts. The fate of the Tearling hangs in the balance.

In The Queen of the Tearling, the series began as a traditional fantasy tale of a young monarch coming to power after being raised in secrecy for her own protection. In her first days on the throne, Kelsea Raleigh Glynn made powerful enemies by stopping the shipment of Tear slaves to Mortmesne. But from that prosaic beginning, the trilogy has made some unusual choices, revealing a dystopian twist, and a science-fiction turn that create an interesting blend of genres. Johansen has built a unique world, but one that requires a high level of buy-in from the reader, and acceptance that not everything will be readily explained. With The Fate of the Tearling bringing the trilogy to a close, there are still many questions and loose threads left over from the second volume.

Raised in exile by a historian, Kelsea believes strongly in the importance of history, and that the past can help her unlock their present predicament. Imprisoned in a Mort dungeon, she gives herself over to her strange fugue states, which mysteriously continue despite the fact that she has been separated from Tear’s sapphires. Though Lily Mayhew is still alive at the time, Kelsea is now seeing William Tear’s Town through the eyes of Katie Rice, the daughter of Tear’s trusted lieutenant, Dorian. As Tear’s utopian dream begins to unravel in the years after the Crossing, Katie is recruited for secret training to guard Tear’s heir, Jonathan. These flashback sections are more loosely framed than in The Invasion of the Tearling, possibly because with Kelsea imprisoned, there is little other action to interrupt.

Since Kelsea is imprisoned in Mortmesne, Johansen draws on the perspectives of wide variety of secondary characters to flesh out the wider story. In New London, Andalie’s daughter Aisa observes events from her new position as a member of the Queen’s Guard. Several chapters are seen from the perspective of Arlen Thorne’s witch, Brenna, who was captured and imprisoned in the Keep dungeon. The traitorous Gate Guard Javel follows the Queen’s Guard on their mission to Desmesne, more to find his long-lost wife than for any interest in rescuing the Queen. As usual, Johansen perfectly times her changes in perspective for maximum dramatic tension.

In the first two installments of the series, Kelsea relied heavily on the magic of the mysterious Tear sapphires, handed down through generations of Raleigh monarchs. Their precise origins and the source of their power both remained unexplained, making them a rather unsatisfying device. In The Fate of the Tearling, we finally get some answers, but perhaps not as many as some readers might desire. Despite the explanations, the sapphires are still overly-convenient devices, but understanding their history does mitigate this somewhat. This reliance on the sapphires weakens Kelsea’s character, and the series as a whole, but Johansen’s strong pacing, and complex characters such as Mace, the Red Queen, and the Fetch carry the series to an intriguing if not entirely satisfying conclusion.

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Kushiel’s Dart

Cover image for Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey by Jacqueline Carey

ISBN 978-0-7653-4298-0

“Such a small thing on which to hinge a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. If it had been any other hue, perhaps it would have been a different story.”

Abandoned by her parents on the doorstep of the Night Court—home to the courtesans of Terre D’Ange—Phèdre is groomed for a life of service to Naamah in the City of Elua. But a red spot in her left eye marks her unfit to officially serve in the Night Court, so her marque is sold to the courtier Anafiel Delaunay, who raises her up to be a spy as well as a courtesan. Delaunay is also the only one to recognize what the red mote in her eye betokens; Phèdre is marked by Blessed Elua’s companion Kushiel, and she is an anguisette, doomed to take her pleasure in pain. Without knowing the depths in which is swimming, Phèdre stumbles upon the key to a plot that threatens the Crown, and indeed Terre D’Ange itself.

Jacqueline Carey has built and elaborate world and religious system in Kushiel’s Dart, one that defies quick explanation. Indeed, the first hundred or so pages of the book have very little plot, and mostly contain exposition and world-building, which may be a hard sell for some readers to get past. The tone can also be somewhat baroque, as Phèdre is formally relating her adventures sometime after the fact. Carey’s world has very clear parallels to our Europe, but the story of Elua and his companions makes for a unique culture in which to set the story. Of those cast down from heaven to follow Elua, Naamah served by selling her body, and so in Terre D’Ange, courtesans are something akin to priestesses, practicing a holy art that is governed by custom and contract. Despite the information dumping to set this all up, I admire the way there is such a logical structure behind D’Angeline culture being kinkier, more sex-positive, and more accepting of open relationships than our own world—it is literally built into their religious system, and their way of life is logical extension of that. The sex scenes also tend to tie into the plot, as Phèdre seeks out information for Delaunay.

This isn’t our world, so it is difficult to label the characters in our terms, but most D’Angelines are what we might term bisexual. Once she enters the service of Naamah, Phèdre accepts assignations with both men and women, as does her foster brother Alcuin. This is not merely a matter of the Night Court and courtesans, however; Delaunay is also known to have loved both men and women, though some characters clearly have a preference one way or another. And of course, the great houses must make marriages to perpetual their lineage. Though both of Phèdre’s main romantic interests are men, she is captivated by her patron Melisande Shahrizai, a descendant of Kushiel’s house who understands and appreciates what it means to be an anguisette in a way that neither of the men do. But Melisande is also a wily and untrustworthy political player, to whom Phèdre cannot really give her heart.

Once the world is established, the narrative itself is a potent mix of sex and politics. King Ganelon de la Courcel is old, and his heir is his granddaughter Ysandre, who is as yet unmarried, though many have bid for her hand and failed. The succession was destabilized by the death of Ysandre’s father, Rolande, who was a killed in a famous battle driving back the Skaldi from the D’Angeline border. As Ganelon ails, the nobility are quietly skirmishing to upend the succession for their own gain. Anafiel Delaunay is somehow mixed up in the intrigue, and Phèdre and Alcuin spy at his bidding, but he does not reveal his full hand to them. This will lead Phèdre into adventures she never could have imagined when she pledged herself to Naamah’s service. Even as the succession is imperiled, Terre D’Ange is on the brink of war with Skaldia once more.

In many respects, this will be a series that is not for all readers. It is a romantic fantasy, but the sex scenes are explicit, and many of them are also violent; god-touched as she is, Phèdre is not so much kinky as we would recognize it as she is an utter masochist who takes pleasure in being subjected to violence that would be beyond the pale in reality. And while being a courtesan is a respected role in Terre D’Ange, this is not the case in other countries, and once Phèdre starts to travel, the situation gets a little murkier. I would recommend caution for anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or rape. But those who are up for it are in for a twisty, sex-positive political fantasy with many intricate layers.

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You might also like Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Of Fire and Stars

of-fire-and-starsby Audrey Coulthurst

ISBN 978-0-06-243325-1

“Princesses don’t play with fire.”

Princess Dennaleia of Havemont has been promised to Prince Thandilimon of Mynaria since childhood. The marriage will seal an alliance that will help the two countries defend against their mysterious and powerful Eastern neighbour, Zumourda. Denna has an Affinity for fire, one of the elements tied to worship of the Six. But magic is strictly forbidden in Mynaria, so she must hide her ability when, at sixteen, she is sent south to finally make her marriage vows. In Mynaria, Denna meets Princess Amaranthine, better known as Mare, who is the elder sister of her betrothed. Mare is charged with teaching Denna to ride a horse before the wedding, but soon sparks are flying between the two girls. When the assassination of a member of the royal family threatens to destabilize Mynaria, Denna and Mare must work together to solve the mystery before Mynaria is plunged into war.

Of Fire and Stars will have definite appeal for readers who hate love at first sight. The relationship between Denna and Mare is a bit of a slow burn. Denna appears to be the perfect princess, while Mare has rebelled against all of her family’s expectations, spending most of her time training horses. Her hobby is tolerated because the royal family breeds some of the best horses in the world, and horses are an essential part of Mynarian culture. Mare has no desire to teach a green novice how to ride, and the two get off to a rough start. But after the assassination, Denna feels sidelined by the Directorate, and Mare seems to be the only person who shares her concerns and suspicions about what is going on.

Whether it is because she is nervous in an unfamiliar place, or unusually emotional due to her unexpected feelings for Mare, Denna struggles to control her magic in Mynaria to an extent that never occurred back home in Havemont. She has succeeded in hiding her power, but her arrival in Mynaria nevertheless becomes controversial when it becomes public that the alliance will mean that Havemont will restrict access to the High Adytym, a key place of magical worship for Mynarian pilgrims. Audrey Coulthurst weaves religion and magic together, creating separatist factions, borrowing the term Recusant from the Reformation period. The political and religious conflicts are less well developed than the romance, and Zumourda in particular is a blank slate onto which anything can be written.

While a strong taboo against magic exists in Mynaria, and a slightly less stringent disapproval is noticeable in Havemont, same sex relationships are relatively free of stigma in the world Coulthurst has created. The tension in Denna and Mare’s relationship comes from the threat of upending an important political alliance between their two countries. Denna also feels guilty about breaking the promise she made in her betrothal, despite the fact that she had little choice in the matter. Mare and her brother do not enjoy a close relationship, so Mare feels less guilty about coming between them, and more angry about the fact that her brother doesn’t seem to appreciate Denna’s intelligence or respect her as an equal. There is plenty of complication in their romance, without the need for the shame of homophobia. This dynamic is very similar to the one Malinda Lo created in Ash, and indeed Coulthurst thanks her in the acknowledgments. Interestingly, however, gender roles and expectations still pose a problem for both Denna and Mare, even in a world where a woman can be captain of the guard, a woman is Queen in her own right of a neighbouring kingdom.

Of Fire and Stars is a slow-burn forbidden romance laced with magic, highly recommended for fans of Malinda Lo’s Ash.