Category: Fantasy

Protect the Prince (Crown of Shards #2)

Cover image for Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estepby Jennifer Estep

ISBN 9780062797643

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher

 “I wasn’t the queen everyone had expected and I certainly wasn’t the one they wanted, so draping myself in layers of silk and cascades of jewels seemed silly and pointless. Besides, you couldn’t fight very well in a ball gown. Although in that regard, it didn’t really matter what I wore, since every day at Seven Spire was a battle.”

Having defeated her scheming cousin Vasilia in a royal challenge per the Bellonan gladiatorial tradition, Everleigh Winter Blair is now Queen of Bellona. Unfortunately, her impressive performance in the ring hasn’t stopped Bellona’s scheming nobles from continuing their long game, and taking bets on how long her unexpected reign will last. But Evie has bigger things to worry about, including the coming war with Morta, and Morta’s ongoing interference in her efforts to secure a treaty with the neighbouring kingdom of Andvari. With her closest advisors in tow, Evie sets out for Andvari, determined to personally seal the deal while there is still time. But the Andvarian court is full of its own plots and intrigues, as well as secrets about Lucas Sullivan’s past.

Protect the Prince picks up several months after the events of Kill the Queen, and is organized around a series of assassination attempts. Evie has claimed the crown, but now she must secure it against all those who would try the new queen. Having escaped during the royal challenge, and returned to her native Morta, Maeven and her Bastard Brigade grow increasingly desperate to complete their mission and kill Evie for the King of Morta, leaving Evie besieged from within and without. At the Andvarian court, she is also surrounded by Lucas’ family, his ex-fiancée, and an entire court of nobles who blame her for the deaths of Prince Frederich and Ambassador Hans during the Seven Spire Massacre. Internally, Evie struggles with imposter syndrome, trying to project strength and certainty to the world, despite her secret belief that she was never meant to be queen.

After playing coy in the first volume, Estep does finally deliver some romantic satisfaction in Protect the Prince. Evie and Lucas continue circling one another cautiously for most of this second volume; Lucas continues to stand on his principles, and Evie continues to respect his wishes, leading to a long and frustrating stalemate. However, traveling to Glanzen, and staying at Glitnir where Lucas grew up is a revealing twist that exposes how the son of the Andvarian king’s mistress became so guarded in the first place. A series of flashbacks equally develops Evie’s backstory, unveiling details about her parents’ murders and her own escape from Winterwind. In much the same way that Estep drew out the events of Kill the Queen by having Evie hesitate to trust her identity to Serilda, Lucas, and the other members of the Black Swan troupe, Protect the Prince is drawn out by Lucas’s inability to bend, and Evie’s unwillingness to push him, as well as her desire to protect him from the consequences of her new responsibilities as queen.

With Vasilia dead, Maevan and Morta take center stage as the villains of Protect the Prince. Maeven’s motives are slightly more developed than Vasilia’s, but she still comes across as a bit of monologuer. The Mortan king remains a shadowy, nameless background figure, pulling the strings of his Bastard Brigade, and allowing his illegitimate sister to do his dirty work while he plots to gain an empire. The title of the third volume, Crush the King, suggests that he will take on a more prominent role in the final installment of the Crown of Shards series, due out in 2020.

You might also like The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

Kill the Queen

Cover image for Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estepby Jennifer Estep

ISBN 9780062797629

“Summer queens are fine and fair, with pretty ribbons and flowers in their hair. Winter queens are cold and hard, with frosted crowns made of icy shards.”

Although nearly thirty years old, Lady Everleigh Winter Blair is still a ward of her cousin, Queen Cordelia of Bellona. For more than half her life, ever since her parents were murdered, Evie has lived at the palace, serving as the royal stand-in for whatever luncheons and ceremonies are not deemed important enough for the Queen or her daughters to attend to personally. Apprenticed to the royal jeweler, Evie dreams of using her carefully hoarded savings to return home to Winterwind, her family estate, and live a quiet life far from the intrigues of the court. All she needs is the Queen’s permission, which she hopes to get at a luncheon announcing Crown Princess Vasilia’s engagement to Prince Frederich of Andvari. But Vasilia has plans of her own, and they do not include marriage, or an alliance with Andvari. When Vasilia murders her mother to secure the throne for herself, Evie is driven into hiding, taking refuge with the Black Swan gladiator troupe, owned by the disgraced Serilda Swanson, who was once bodyguard to Queen Cordelia.

Kill the Queen is an adult fantasy with a quasi-medieval, Roman-influenced setting, and a multi-tiered magic system. Evie is a “mutt” with only a hint of magic, despite her royal bloodline, while Cordelia and Vasilia are powerful elemental magiers who wield fire and lightning. Some people are mortals, with no magic at all, but this group is not explored in the book. The world is also populated by morphs, who can transform into other creatures, such as ogres and dragons. However, Evie has also been hiding another special talent for most of her life, an anti-magic, which her mother cautioned her to keep hidden at all costs, lest others seek to exploit her. So while Evie has certain abilities and advantages within this world, she is not a power player, and the arc of this novel is about watching her become one.

 Kill the Queen is not primarily a romance, focusing instead on court intrigues and gladiator adventures. But Evie does have a slow burn going on with Lucas Sullivan, the enforcer and head magier of the Black Swan troupe, from the moment that he finds her sleeping on the floor of his house inside the gladiator complex. But both Evie and Sullivan are prickly, secretive people who do not trust easily. This gives their relationship great banter, and a crackling tension, but though this is an adult fantasy, Estep does not deliver so much as a kiss, at least in this first volume of the planned trilogy.

The book’s main villain is Crown Princess Vasilia. Evie has known her since she arrived at Seven Spire as an orphaned child. By the time the book opens, the two women have nothing to do with one another, but once they were friends, and Vasilia betrayed that friendship. Over the course of the book, Evie slowly reveals the form that betrayal took, and the scars it left. She has very few friends, and trusts almost no one at the court. It is only once she arrives at the Black Swan that she considers friendship again, dangerous though it may be to her secrets. The Black Swan has its own intrigues, and unable to stay out of them, Evie finds the best friend she never had in Paloma, the troupe’s number one gladiator. Unfortunately, Vasilia herself is a bit flat, coming across as a monologuing psychopath. However, this has interesting consequences for Evie’s character, and combined with the fact that she is not set to be the series villain, it is a relatively minor complaint.

I listened Kill the Queen in audio form, narrated by the consistently excellent Lauren Fortgang, who also performed Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, and was part of the cast for the audio version of Six of Crows as well. I’m now all caught up for the recently released Protect the Prince, so check back for that review soon!

You might also like The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air #2)

Cover image for The Wicked King by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316310338

 “Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to.

With her young step-brother Oak revealed as an heir of the Greenbriar line, Jude has made her bid for the throne of Faerie, and won, after a fashion. Bound to her will for a year and a day, Prince Cardan now sits on his father’s throne, while Jude pulls his strings. But a year and a day is not enough time for Oak to grow up, and become a King who will be kinder than Balekin, more responsible than Cardan, or less bloodthirsty than Madoc. Now it is a game of chess, as Jude tries to find a way to bind Cardan to her for longer, and Cardan tries to wiggle around the strictures of her edicts. General Madoc seems to be quietly planning his own next move, while Queen Orlagh of the Sea Folk is determined to see Cardan married to her daughter, Nicasia. Power is fleeting, and everyone wants a taste.

The Wicked King opens on Jude as the lonely power behind the throne, alienated from her twin sister, and her adopted family by her betrayal of Madoc at the coronation ceremony during the events of The Cruel Prince. She has seized the Crown, but must keep the fact of her power secret, desperately trying to quell Cardan’s rebellions, and her own feelings for the troubled Prince, who is now High King, if only in name. Faerie has no love for mortals who gain favour and power, and they would love nothing more than a reason to cast her down. While Dane’s geas continues to protect her from enchantment, there are many other ways to extract revenge. She has temporarily seized control, but she can feel the days slipping through her fingers, knowing that she will lose everything if Cardan bides out his year and a day, and becomes High King in fact. Having betrayed her family to gain power, now she must face the question of what she will do in order to keep it.

If you love a dark and twisted faerie tale, it is hard to go wrong with Holly Black. This series is also highly recommended for those who enjoy the trope of enemies to lovers. Cardan’s long hatred and resentment of Jude stems from his hatred of the fact that she, a mortal, has found a place in Faerie, even while he was always rejected by his own father despite being a prince of the blood. Trained from childhood to hate himself by his father’s disdain, he hates himself even more for being attracted to Jude despite her mortality. Meanwhile, Jude knows that she is playing a dangerous game. Mortals who fall in love with the Folk never fair well, as her own mother’s bloody fate constantly reminds her. Her twin sister, Taryn, is playing an equally dangerous game with the conniving and despicable Locke, and though the sisters are estranged, Jude hopes she can somehow protect Taryn, and give her the happily ever after she dreams of.

As one lone, mere mortal in a magical realm, Jude can little hope to control all the many threads and intrigues of Faerie, as various factions try the strength of their new king. But try she must, as Cardan shows little interest in ruling, and she has few allies to call on. Even the Court of Shadows is not to be fully trusted, though Jude must accept their aid. Holly Black takes the reader for a tense ride through the months of Cardan’s vow, and though we know it must end in disaster, she still manages to bring The Wicked King to stunning cliff-hanger that will leave you reaching for The Queen of Nothing, due out in the fall of 2019.

Also by Holly Black:
The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown 

The Iron Trial (with Cassandra Clare)

Romanov

Cover image for Romanov by Nadine Brandesby Nadine Brandes

ISBN 9780785217244

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“After Rasputin, the people grew too suspicious of spell masters, convinced they could control minds. So the revolution began—forcing Papa off the throne and hunting down spell masters, one by one.”

When the Romanov family is transported from exile in Tobolsk to a new prison in Ekaterinburg, Anastasia “Nastya” Romanov is entrusted by her father, the deposed tsar, with a family heirloom which she must hide from the Bolsheviks at all costs. The magical Matryoshka doll was made by the great spell master Dochkin, and may hold the key to saving the Romanovs, as well as preventing Dochkin from being forcibly recruited into the Red Army, or murdered. But Commandant Yurovsky will stop at nothing to find the legendary spell master, and only one of his artefacts can uncover his secret hiding place. In Ekaterinburg, the days count down steadily towards July 16, 1918, as the Romanovs try to win over their captors, and live in hope of rescue by the White Army.

Nadine Brandes introduces a magical twist into the ever-popular story of the Romanov princesses and their grisly fate. Grigori Rasputin is an off-page character, blamed for much, the catalyst for many events, but never actually seen. However, he is not the only magician in this story. Thanks to his actions, Russia has turned on all its spell masters, demanding that they serve the state, or die. Spell work has been responsible for keeping Tsarevich Alexei alive despite his hemophilia, but at a terrible price. Nastya herself dreams of becoming a spell master, but with Rasputin gone, there is no one to teach her, and the only spell she knows will ease her brother’s pain, but not heal his injuries. Brandes does an excellent job of imagining and depicting relationships within the family, and especially the interactions between siblings, though she mainly focuses on Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.

Brandes includes two romantic subplots for the Romanov sisters in captivity; Maria falls for a Bolshevik soldier named Ivan, while Nastya tries to keep at bay growing feelings for his secretive comrade, Zash. The tension in the romance between Ivan and Maria felt a little bit more fraught, so when I got to the “What’s True” section at the end of the book, I was not terribly surprised to discover that Maria’s flirtation with Ivan was based on true events, while Zash is wholly imaginary character, invented for his instrumental role in the second half of the story.

For the most part, the first half of the book, which takes place before the fateful night of July 16, hews closely to the history of what we know about the Romanov’s captivity, with a few magical and romantic twists. However, nearly half the books takes place after that night, and it is here that Brandes gallops off into the realm of pure fantasy, with mixed results. Part of the romance of the Romanov survival myth in imagining what came next, and the reader’s enjoyment of the latter part of the story will likely hinge on how well Brandes’ vision accords with their own ideas.

You might also like The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

The Deepest Blue

Cover image for The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durstby Sarah Beth Durst

ISBN 978-0-06-269084-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Clinging to her best friend, and the love of her life, Mayara knew she’d made the right decision leaving everything and everyone behind but bringing her heart and soul with her.”

Having successfully hidden her power to command the nature spirits that terrorize their islands, Mayara has just married the love of her life, Kelo. But when a spirit storm strikes their village on the day of their wedding, Mayara chooses to save her family and friends, even though it means discovery. Now she will be faced with a terrible choice between renouncing her life and joining the Silent Ones, the island’s police force, or facing the Trial on Akena Island, for a chance to become one of the heirs. Because the islands must always have a queen who can quiet The Deepest Blue, and only those who can survive Akena Island are worthy to take her place.

The Deepest Blue is fundamentally a novel about love and family, as well as tradition and change. Mayara is not the first in her family to face the choice. Her sister, Elorna, failed to hide her power, and died on Akena Island, trying to become an heir, shattering their mother’s heart. For this reason, Kelo begs Mayara to choose the Silent Ones, even though he knows this means he will never see her again. To incentivize women to face the trials, only heirs are allowed to have families and personal lives, while the Silent Ones live monastic lives of service to crown. But when Mayara faces her choice, she has no idea whether Kelo is dead or alive, for her to honour her promise. She is caught in a stultifying system of traditions which has ensured that the women who are ostensibly the most powerful in the kingdom must bind themselves into service, and then go on doing the same to their spirit sisters, generation upon generation.

Sarah Beth Durst has created an interesting symbiotic magic system, in which the queens and the spirits need one another. The spirits create the very lands which humans inhabit, and the plants that give them shelter and food, but left unchecked, they will create and create until it tips over into destruction and chaos. The queens rein in the spirits’ wilder impulses, limiting their creation, and curbing their destruction, and the world carries on. But just having that power comes at a social cost; Mayara must either give up her family, or risk her life. And when we meet Queen Asana, current ruler of the islands, the reader quickly sees that even rising to the top of the hierarchy of spirit sisters is not without sacrifices or difficult decisions. And even queens can be controlled.

The Deepest Blue is a standalone novel set in the world of Durst’s Queens of Renthia trilogy. Not having read that trilogy, I wasn’t sure how well I would pick up on this novel, but I found that I didn’t need to be familiar with The Queen of Blood or its sequels in order to follow Mayara’s adventures. No doubt there were some references that I missed out on, but I was never confused about what was going on. I did gather that one of my favourite characters, Lady Garnah—Queen’s advisor and chief poisoner—was a crossover from the original books, so I look forward to backtracking to read more about her exploits, as well as the world of Renthia.

You might also like The Impostor  Queen by Sarah Fine

The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2)

Cover image for The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty by S. A. Chakraborty

ISBN 978-0-06-267813-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“To be a Nahid in the throne room was to have her family’s stolen heritage thrust in her face while she was forced to bow down before the thieves”

It has been five years since Nahri and Muntadhir were forced into a marriage alliance, and Ali was exiled to Am Gezira. Ghassan’s iron-fisted rule has only tightened on the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. Nahri has spent her days in the infirmary with Nisreen, mastering the Nahid art of healing, and trying to figure out how to fix the damage that was done to Jamshid, despite the curse that seems to prevent her magic from properly acting on him. But as her powers grow, and the old Nahid palace begins to respond to her magic, Nahri worries that if Ghassan discovers what she can truly do, he will eliminate her once and for all. But she will not be content to remain under his thumb much longer.

In the second volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, rival factions collide, and war is brewing. Tensions between the clans within the magical city are escalating, with the half-blood shafit always paying the largest price for the conflict between the Daevas and the Geziri. Relations with Ta Ntry have grown fraught, as Queen Hatset punishes her husband for exiling her son by cutting off the flow of necessary taxes from the wealthy land of her birth. Meanwhile, unknown forces are gathering outside the city, setting themselves against Ghassan’s rule. Chakraborty has developed a fraught dynamic by granting the reader access to multiple narrative perspectives. The warring groups are not speaking to, or sometimes even aware of, one another, but the reader can see the collision course that is being charted as the generation festival of Navasatem approaches.

Ali had been settling into a quiet life in Am Gezira, making peace with the results of his fall into Daevabad’s haunted lake, and trying to use his abilities to benefit the people who live in Am Gezira’s draught-stricken desert. But Daevabad is not done with him yet, drawing him back into its web, and the intrigues of his father’s court. Once trained to be his brother’s Qaid, the military seems to draw hope from his return, but commanding such loyalty is a dangerous thing for a younger prince. The two once-close brothers have been converted into bitter rivals, and Ghassan seems torn on the question of which one should inherit his throne, and Suleiman’s Seal with it.

Nahri is likewise trying to make peace with her choices, and the harm they have done to people she cared about. Once an outsider in Daevabad, she has stepped into the shoes of the Banu Nahida, a role that is at once powerful amongst the Daeava, and powerless thanks to Ghassan’s tight control over her life. This tension leads to her relating more and more strongly to the Daeva, at the cost of potentially playing into the deadly rivalry that has left deep wounds in the city’s psyche. Their prejudices threaten to poison everything, and Nahri is not immune to this thinking. Nor can she really understand why, when she seeks to ally herself with a shafit doctor, the woman is distrustful of her motives. The more Nahri hates Ghassan and resents Muntadhir, the more she seeks refuge in her Nahid heritage, little knowing what it truly means to be a Nahid.

Volume three seems set on a collision course with the woman who began this saga when she faked her own death, and abandoned her half-blood child in the slums of Cairo. Nahri does not know her mother, and has no reason to trust her. She knows the al Qahtani siblings, even if she has little reason to trust in them. The Kingdom of Copper is a gripping continuation of The City of Brass that will leave you eager for The Empire of Gold, due out in 2020

You might also like The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

Muse of Nightmares (Strange the Dreamer #2)

Cover image for Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor by Laini Taylor

ISBN 978-0-316-34171-4

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“There comes a certain point with a hope or a dream, when you either give it up or give up everything else. And if you choose the dream, if you keep on going, then you can never quit, because it’s all you are.”

Following the discovery of Lazlo’s strange origin, and Sarai’s fall from the citadel, the fate of Weep rests in the hands of the vengeful Minya. True, Lazlo can command the citadel, but only Minya’s power holds Sarai’s soul in this world. Given form and substance by her sister’s ability, it is almost as if Sarai never died. But Minya wants to take her ghost army into the city of Weep to exact the vengeance she has dreamed of for so long, and she vows that she will let Sarai’s soul evanesce if Lazlo does not comply, leaving him with a terrible choice between saving Sarai, and saving the people of Weep who have welcomed him as if he was one of their own. So many doors to the future, even to other worlds, have opened with Lazlo’s return, but with Minya still trapped in the past, there can be no moving forward without a reckoning.

Between the chapters about our old friends from Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor interweaves a new perspective, following sisters Nova and Kora. Living in an icy wasteland where women do most of the hard labour, and it is only a matter of time before their father sells them off in marriage, they dream of the only way out they know. Perhaps, like their mother before them, they will be chosen by the Servants of the Empire. Because everyone has a talent, and the Servants can find it. And if their talents are good enough, and powerful enough, maybe they too will be taken away, never to return. But serving the Empire comes with its own price.

Muse of Nightmares is a seamless continuation from the events of Strange the Dreamer. The first book ended in a tight corner, with Lazlo trapped between Minya’s will for vengeance, and his desire to save Sarai. Getting out of this bind is a bit of a tightrope act, and one that is not without its slips. The perspectives of Kora and Nova seem to have little immediate connection to the situation in Weep, though it is relatively easy to make the connection to the multiple worlds theory revealed by the origins of the Mesarthim given in Strange the Dreamer. While the first volume left these possibilities as a tantalizing backstory, they become more explicit in Muse of Nightmares, peering behind the curtain of the worlds. This was satisfying in some ways, but felt a bit like seeing how the magic trick is performed in others.

To break the deadlock between the original characters, Taylor relies on the strategy of introducing a new, more formidable villain who poses a common problem for the residents of the citadel. Given the godlike powers already possessed by Sarai and her sisters, this is naturally a bit over the top, an almost literal deus ex machina, if you will. Taylor ratchets up the tension in a conflict where the stakes were already impossibly high, and in doing so flattens some of the emotional impact of her tale. Muse of Nightmares provides revelations and closure, but doesn’t quite manage to recapture the magic of Strange the Dreamer.

You might also like City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylorby Laini Taylor

ISBN 978-0-316-34168-4

His books were not his dream. Moreover, he had tucked his dream into their pages like a bookmark, and been content to leave it there for too long. The fact was: Nothing he might ever do or read or find inside the Great Library of Zosma was going to bring him one step closer to Weep. Only a journey would do that.”

From his childhood as an orphan in a monastery, to his young adulthood as a junior library apprentice, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the lost city of Weep. For thousands of years, magical goods crossed the Elmuthaleth desert to be traded, but no faranji was ever allowed to see the city from whence they came, on pain of death. But two hundred years ago, all trade suddenly ceased without explanation. Once, Weep had another name, but fifteen years ago it was snatched from the minds of the few who remembered the city at all, including Lazlo, whose obsession was only deepened by the loss. Now a hero from Weep, known as the Godslayer, has emerged from the Elmuthaleth, seeking the best scientists to join a delegation that will help the city solve the last remnant of the problem that halted trade for two hundred years. But what use could such a delegation have for a mere junior librarian who has studied Weep all his life, and yet undoubtedly knows less about it than anyone who was raised there?

In beautiful prose that will be familiar to fans of her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor brings to life a vivid new fantasy world that didn’t so much capture my imagination as take it hostage, until I stayed up far too late to reach the last page, and find out what would become of Lazlo, Sarai, and the people of Weep. Taylor opens with Lazlo, the orphan who will take us on our journey into the unknown. After spending his childhood in a monastery, Lazlo escapes to the Great Library of Zosma, and a career as a librarian. In his world, librarians are the mere servants of the aristocratic scholars, expected to keep knowledge, but never to discover it. But Lazlo is forever tripping over that line, particularly in his somewhat antagonistic relationship with Thyon Nero, golden son of Zosma, and the only alchemist who has ever produced gold. The other perspective belongs to Sarai, a girl who lives a strange secluded life with four other children, but dreams of the city of Weep every night.

To say too much more is to spoil Taylor’s careful parsing out of information, which kept me on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how it all fit together. Some have described this as a slow start to Strange the Dreamer, but I was intent on soaking up her beautiful world-building and getting to know the various characters. The Godslayer refuses to tell the delegation what problem they will be charged with solving when they arrive in Weep, and so the chapters that are introduced from the perspective of Sarai and her sisters have a foreshadowing quality, revealing intriguing information, and yet remaining maddeningly coy and removed. As the delegation crosses the Elmuthaleth, the climber and acrobat Calixte starts a wager about the problem that awaits their combined skills in Weep, and I found myself placing similar bets as Taylor slowly unspools her story.

Strange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but makes bold choices with the consequences. While originally planned as a standalone, it is now a duology, so the book ends with a twist that leaves the protagonists in a seemingly impossible situation. If I have one reservation, it is that I don’t see how Taylor can write herself out of this one without jumping the shark. But perhaps I have too little faith. Whatever Muse of Nightmares delivers, Strange the Dreamer is magnificent in its own right. I’d be mad at myself for waiting this long to read it, if not for the fact that I can now go read the sequel immediately.

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You might also like City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty