I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from this fantasy debut, but I enjoyed it immensely. While this book doesn’t really do anything new with the various standard fantasy bits and pieces, it’s an engrossing and fast-paced read. As a warning, this is the first book in a duology, and it does have a heck of a cliffhanger.
Askia’s cousin has killed her grandfather the king, stolen the throne, and basically made Seravesh into a vassal state of the Roven empire. Askia and her band of warriors have fled to a neighboring country in hopes of involving the Vishir empire, the only remaining country strong enough to oppose them. Askia grew up traveling the world with her father, a famous healer, and mother, and only returned to become the heir to the throne of Seravesh after her parents were murdered by extremists. She spent a good part of her youth in army camps so she’s more comfortable in training clothes than a courtier’s dress. But in Vishir, she’s expected to follow their rules – an unmarried woman can’t talk to a man without causing gossip, for instance. But Askia needs an army, and her best bet is to learn how to play the game – quickly. Because the truth of what’s happening in the Roven empire is even worse than she thought.
“Hope. My grandfather used to say that only fools think they can change the world with hope.”
“What would he tell you to do now?”
“He’d tell me to quit blubbering and do my damned duty.”
While this is an adult fantasy book, the naivety of the heroine causes it to read a bit like young adult, despite the fact that she’s in her early 20s. Both her upbringing following her parents around and her no-nonsense grandfather make her blunt and generally unaccustomed to political machinations, and she does suffer a bit from the “not like other girls!!” trope. It takes her a good part of the book to realize that clothes and makeup are just as much armor as the type she uses for sword fighting. What I think made her work for me, though, was that she was very aware of how little she knew and how unprepared she was, and for the most part, she makes her choices for the greater good of Seravesh. She knows exactly how much is riding on her every move. But she’s unfamiliar with court intrigue, especially the political sort drowning in misogyny that’s commonplace in Vishir, and has trouble identifying potential allies, let alone winning them to her side. On top of that, there’s the question of her magic, which she’s kept hidden all of her life, but which may be the key to saving Seravesh.
Vishir seems loosely based on the Ottoman empire, including the menagerie of the emperor’s women. The majority of the women there are political prisoners, sent to keep their conquered provinces in line, with only one woman being the actual wife of the emperor, Ozura. Though Ozura was my favorite, the rest of the secondary characters are also well-developed and interesting, from the handsome and reticent captain of the guard, Ilya, to the even-more-naive-than-Askia prince, Iskander, and Askia’s Vishiri maid and friend, Nariko. There’s a bit of a love triangle, but it’s not a big focus of the book. Askia herself says she’s not given to mooning around over people, which, aside from the epic eyeroll that caused, is honestly a good summation of her character.
The magic system is very interesting, and I wished we’d gotten to see more of the other types of magic. There’s a big subplot about Askia keeping her magic hidden and trying to decide who she can trust with that secret. It’s dangerous to be identified as a witch in the north, and while Vishir at first glance seems a bit more lax about it, there’s more going on beneath the surface. As if being a royal in exile wasn’t enough, her magic is another thing that leaves her adrift and alone.
The story starts right in the middle of the action. The first few chapters were confusing as they involved quickly dropping a lot of characters, countries, and backstory, but by about a quarter in I was absolutely riveted. I thought the pacing, besides the beginning, was well-done, and it kept me turning the pages well after I should’ve put the book down. The ending, especially, felt like it moved along at breakneck speed, and while my suspicions about what would happen played out as I expected, the journey to get there was incredibly fun.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable fantasy read, recommended for anyone looking for a strong heroine and lots of political intrigue.
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.