I had extremely mixed feelings about the first book in this series. The only two reasons I ended up picking up the second book were (1) the incredible world building that for once doesn’t feel like Tolkien fan fiction but its own thing, and (2) Emmalita telling me I’d like it better than the first.
Emmalita was 100% correct.
Plot: We’re picking up from the first book with a caravan of emissaries from Kosh (the island nation untouched by the Destroyer the first time around) travelling to get more allies for the Destroyer’s return. Our heroine is a Xena type warrior with a mushy heart of gold that is my total catnip. She’s been on the road for a couple of years after being exiled from her homeland for being the sole survivor of a massacre of her soldiers for being a liar and a coward (spoiler alert: she’s neither). She also left behind her childhood sweetheart, since he wouldn’t go with her when she had to leave and she has a Titanic sized chip on her shoulder about it. Thing is, he was born nameless, which I think is fairly described as a analogous to being undocumented, except if everyone knew you were undocumented and therefore had no rights. Though she was named, her name was struck from the book (of names?) for her cowardice right as his name was acknowledged, because his father was the King and a plague had wiped out most of the other royals so even a bastard would do for something like a low key like being a prop for the trip. Intense awkwardness ensues.
The above is about 1% of the plot. There is so much plot in this book. I’m not a plot girl. I’m usually into it for the character studies, because I don’t understand people and need their thought processes explained to me like I’m 4. This book really got me, though. It’s equal parts a political drama, an epic fantasy story, really sweet friends to lovers romance, and a great set up for the actual fight with the Destroyer that doesn’t feel like a filler book. We learn more about the lore of this world and how that lore has been warped over time to fit the needs of those in power, the history of two of the realms in the alliance, and even a glimpse into what is driving the Destroyer.
This book has all the fantastic storytelling of the first book without any of its super unpleasant non-consensual stuff. However, on that note, quick content warning: there is some reference to sexual violence against children. It’s very short, low on detail, and nothing happens on the page.
One of my favourite things about this author is how well she navigates really complex political topics. For example, here is a part in the book where a character explains, quite succinctly, how privilege works:
“[character] will tell you that he earned his place on the [spoiler] by working so very hard, too. And likely he did. But what he will never say is that everyone works hard. From the mines to the palace, everyone labors. Yet they do not rise. He will say it is because they do not work hard enough, or fail to focus their efforts in the right way – but he will never admit that his place now is the result of opportunity that others who worked as hard never had, and merely because his father knew [character].”
This skill also manifests in how Vane balances different cultures and how they clash. It is so easy to make one culture the Right Ones, and everyone else the Wrong Ones, with the story being about how everyone who is Wrong learns to do things the Right way, but Vane forces you to consider the value of polar opposite approaches. It isn’t about showing a culture how wrong they have it or change yours completely, but to accept the differences, celebrate them, and remember that things change, so what saved you yesterday may be your biggest obstacle tomorrow.