Category: Fantasy

Of Ice and Shadows (Of Fire and Stars #2)

Cover image for Of Ice and Shadows by Audrey Coulthurstby Audrey Coulthurst

ISBN 9780062841223

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

 “It felt like the latest in a series of mistakes, and I wasn’t even sure what the first one had been. Was it letting everyone believe I’d died in the star fall? Was it the morning I’d gotten up before dawn to leave Mare behind? Or, the darkest part of my heart asked, was it the night I’d chosen to flee from the man I was betrothed to in order to save his sister instead?”

With everyone believing that Princess Dennaleia of Havemont was killed in the starfall that also struck down the scheming Lord Kriantz of Sonnenborne, Denna and Mare are finally free to be together. But as Princess Amaranthine, Mare also owes a duty to her brother, the newly crowned King Thandillimon of Mynaria. With the Sonnenborne plot revealed, it is crucial that they recruit the magical kingdom of Zumorda as an ally, despite Mynarian’s instinctive suspicion of magic. Better yet, in Zumorda, Denna will be accepted, and able to receive training for her gifts, the destructive scope of which has frightened Mare beyond words. So with Denna disguised as her maid, Mare sets out as the newly appointed Mynarian ambassador to Zumorda. Unfortunately, the Zumordan queen seems uninterested in Mynaria’s troubles, and unconcerned by the Sonnenborne plot. Denna’s gift, on the other hand, is extremely interesting, and soon Queen Invasya is trying to recruit her into an elite but dangerous magical training program that threatens to separate her from Mare.

If Of Fire and Stars was about forbidden love, Of Ice and Shadows is about what happens when the initial obstacle is removed, and the next stage must be faced. Traveling in disguise, Denna encounters new constraints, having to pretend to be Mare’s maid, and hiding her intelligence and diplomatic skills. And once across the border, no one can understand why a powerful magic user like “Lia” would be a servant to a vakos like Mare, who has no gift at all. While Denna seeks training for her gift, she becomes uncomfortably aware that Mare would rather find a way to eliminate her magic altogether—Mynarian prejudice against magic runs deep. Having already given up her identity to be with Mare, Denna is faced with the question of whether she will sacrifice more of herself in the name of love. Magic also keeps the two apart in more ways than one; after accidentally burning Mare in an amourous moment, Denna refuses to touch her again until her power is under control. I wasn’t a huge fan of this trope being introduced, as it tends to be rooted in sex shame, and I don’t think this use subverted that problem.

Of Ice and Shadows is told in alternating chapters, from Mare and Denna’s perspectives. Their voices aren’t terribly distinct, and it can be easy to mix the two up during the first part of the story, when they are both generally in the same place. As their paths diverge a bit in the latter half of the book, this becomes less of a concern. While both characters grow in the course of the book, it is especially important for Mare. Out from under the critical eye of the Mynarian court, she is finally able to accept some responsibility for what it means to be a member of the royal house, while also taking advantage of the freedom offered by distance to pursue interests and skills that would have been forbidden to her as a woman in Mynaria. Ultimately, I think it is being able to grow this way herself that enables her to accept Denna’s development as well.

As a setting, Zumorda makes for a much more interesting backdrop than Mynaria. Magic is rife, and there are many different types to be discovered. This makes Mare uncomfortable, but the prevalence makes Denna feel normal for once, like she might belong. Three powerful women play a major role, including the ancient dragon queen, Invasya, Guardian Laurenna, and Grand Vizier Zhari, who are powerful magic users in their own right, based in the Southern trade hub of Kartasha, while the Queen holds court in Corovja. None of the women seem especially concerned by the Sonnenborne threat, leading Mare and Denna to wonder if they are really so powerful in their magic that they have nothing to fear, or if one or more of them may be in league with their enemies.

Of Ice and Shadows wraps up this particular storyline, but leaves ample room to continue exploring the world, and what happens to Mare and Denna next. Currently no further installments have been announced, but a reader can hope!

You might also like The Cursed Queen by Sarah Fine

House of Salt and Sorrows

Cover image for House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig by Erin A. Craig

ISBN 978-1-9848-3192-7

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

 “I turned the page and saw a drawing of all four of them, watching Verity as she slept, hanging from nooses. In disgust, I dropped the notebook, and sheets of loose papers—dozens of sketches of my sisters—escaped. They exploded across the hall like macabre confetti. In the pictures, they were doing things, ordinary things, things I’d seen them do all my life, but in every drawing they were unmistakably and horribly dead.”

Ever since her mother died giving birth to her youngest sister, Annaleigh and her father and sisters have lived in a state of constant mourning. Four of her older sisters have also died under mysterious circumstances, leading to rumours of a curse that haunts the Thaumas sisters. The latest is her sister Eulalie, who fell to her death from the cliffs of Highmoor at midnight—or perhaps she was pushed? Despite Eulalie’s death, the Thaumas sisters are sick of mourning, and even their father has finally remarried, bringing his new wife Morella back to the islands off the coast of Arcannia that the People of the Salt call home. When they discover a secret door—supposedly used by the sea god Pontus to travel vast distances—the remaining sisters begin to spend their nights visiting all the best balls Arcannia has to offer, dancing the night away to forget their grief. But Annaleigh can’t shake the feeling that she and her sisters are still in danger, and that something dark really is haunting the halls of Highmoor.

House of Salt and Sorrows builds on the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, whose father locks them in their room each night, only to find that they have worn out their shoes come morning. Stumped by the crumbling shoes, their father charges his daughters’ suitors with solving the mystery. When Annaleigh’s father decides that the family will throw off their mourning weeds, he buys each of his surviving daughters a beautiful pair of fairy slippers from the finest cobbler, yet when he returns from a business trip, he find that the shoes are already falling apart. Belief in the Thaumas curse has left most men wary of courting the Duke’s daughters, but in a drunken temper, he promises a handsome reward to anyone who can figure out what the girls are up to.

Erin A. Craig employs a creepy, atmospheric setting in the dark, old family estate of Highmoor, set by the sea as winter approaches. I was reading this book on a sunny summer day at the lake, but it felt more like the kind of read that suits a dark and stormy winter night. The gothic elements contrast with the growing romance between Annaleigh and Cassius, the illegitimate son of a sea captain, who has come to the island to care for his sick father. Cassius doesn’t seem to believe in the curse, but perhaps Annaleigh’s fortune is the real allure? Mistrust permeates everything, even new love.

Although the story has a fairy tale basis, the psychological elements are perhaps more important. Annaleigh begins to suspect that there is something more than coincidence to her sisters’ deaths—and it isn’t a curse. She digs into Eulalie’s secrets, suspecting murder, even as she begins to see and hear things, and discovers that her youngest sister believes she has been talking to the ghosts of her dead siblings, even those she is too young to remember. Annaleigh begins to have terrible nightmares that feel all too real, leaving the borderline between reality and imagination blurry at best. Reality is subjective, and the ground is constantly shifting in this twisty tale.

While this story was extremely promising, some of the supernatural elements could have been better integrated. It wasn’t immediately clear that this was a world with gods operating in the world, though perhaps this is because I was expecting faeries, or something more in keeping with the original source material. The first clear hint of this comes when a dressmaker intimates that she has had the honour of designing a gown for the goddess of love, but other deities show up later who were never previously mentioned. It can be difficult to surprise readers without leaving them feeling tricked. Bringing in more of the pantheon earlier in the story might have helped with this dissonance. The balance between the psychological elements of horror and the actual fantastical elements is also hard to strike, and the integration is somewhat uneven. This mars an otherwise promising tale that ably employs an eerie atmosphere alongside well-drawn sibling relationships.

You might also like The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2)

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 978-0-060266263-7

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

 “She had too much power now, too much rage, and she needed a cause for which to burn. Vaisra’s Republic was her anchor. Without that, she’d be lost, drifting.”

Having called down the power of the fire god known as the Phoenix to destroy the islands of the Mugen Federation, Runin “Rin” Fang and the remaining Cike take refuge in the southern port city of Ankhiluun. In order to gather the resources they need to take their revenge for the betrayal of Nikaran Empresss Su Daji, the Cike take on a series of assassinations for Moag, the opium pirate queen of Ankhiluun. Grappling with the consequences of her actions, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Rin turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help.

In trying to cope with the consequences of her actions, Rin is spiraling into deep self-hatred. The atrocity she committed against the Mugen people weighs heavily, and she tries to sooth it with a variety of methods, from self-harm, to opiates, to pledging to commit various acts of atonement. Rin’s past actions are at once monstrous, and understandable, and her reaction is entirely human, if deeply disturbing. Her power means that it is a profoundly dangerous thing for someone like her to be so angry and emotionally vulnerable. Having gone dark at the end of The Poppy War, it is painful to watch her try to flail back towards the surface, even as circumstances around her continue to deteriorate, and Nikara plunges into civil war.

Despite Rin’s shifting allegiances throughout the book, her ultimate enemy remains the Empress, Su Daji. While Rin’s flawed humanity has never been in doubt, the Empress has been something of a distant, all-powerful villain. In The Dragon Republic, we gain a few closer glimpses at the woman who rules Nikara, as well as a peek into her past, when Rin encounters the Ketreyids, a nomadic people who live along the northern borders of the empire, and who can communicate mind to mind. Their leader is able to show Rin the young woman known as the Vipress who would go on to become the sole ruler of Nikara. Though Rin cannot see the similarities between herself and Daji, the Empress sees them all too clearly, recognizing both the threat and the promise of the last Speerly. Each face-to-face encounter with Daji proves critical as Rin questions what the future holds for her, and for Nikara.

Another character who comes further into focus in this second installment is Yin Nezha, Rin’s former rival and Sinegard classmate. The two made peace when the country went to war with the Mugen Federation, and all the students of Sinegard military academy were called up to serve. The two share an uneasy attraction, but their differences and their trauma make it hard for their feelings to come to fruition. In joining his father’s faction, Rin gains further insight into the power and privilege with which he was raised, as well as the secrets the family has been hiding beneath a carefully polished public exterior. His mother, the Lady Saikhara, has deep ties to Hesperia, as well as the missionaries of the Grey Company who believe that shamans are manifestation of Chaos incarnate. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions.

The Dragon Republic brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.

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

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