Do you love the Big Dumb Sadboy Fixed By Perfect Woman trope? Have you read and liked every retelling of Beauty and the Beast you’ve ever encountered? You’re going to love this book.
Plot: Ever since she was a little girl, and saw the powerful, wise queen of Thabiso, commoner Shanti has had only one goal in life – to be a queen, but that is much easier said than done. Still, having unbendable determination and the support of her parents helps. Neighbouring country Njaza needs a queen for their new king and they are not picky, because they go through queens like we go through masks (Get it?? Because it’s still covid forever?!). So they pluck her out of a royal dating site and within a day she’s a queen – only she has none of the power to effect change she grew up craving and her new husband is not only a useless waste of space, he also completely ignores her so she can’t mold him into the perfect puppet. And she has 4 months to convince him and the whole country that she is the first True Queen the country has seen in centuries. Shenanigans ensue.
If I were to offer an alternative title to this book, it would be “The Queen’s Field Guide: How to Mother Your Regressive, Repressed, Traumatized Husband and Force a Nationwide Paradigm Shift While He and Everyone Who Serves Him Undermines You at Every Turn.”
Shanti is a brilliant strategist, an expert researcher, an Olympic level martial artist, is described as looking like a model, is an excellent public speaker, and has the emotional intelligence of an experienced therapist.
Sanyu is an empty shell of a human being that has been filled mostly with relentless, harsh criticism by his father’s most senior advisor (to the extent that he sees him as a parent, albeit an abusive one), and abandonment issues from having, effectively, 40 absent mothers. And don’t be fooled by the cover, he is very obviously modelled on Winston Duke (an excellent choice).
As a result, the arc of the story mostly follows Shanti trying to advance issues like equitable representation in the council of advisors (it’s only dudes), helping Njaza reach beyond its borders (they antagonize everyone) and forge strong relationships with other nations (particularly natural allies like Thabiso), while everything and everyone conspires against her. So she has to redirect her energy towards becoming Sanyu’s full time therapist (if you could imprison your therapist in a dungeon on a whim) and sexual partner (ethical conflict? what? where?) while he rejects her help, her experience, her ideas, and her presence in his life.
And I sound glib, but I really appreciate what Cole does with this book. She has much, MUCH more patience than I do for people whose damage hurts others. This is especially true for the antagonists of the story, who have their own intense trauma from growing up against the backdrop of violent oppression, leading the charge on a violent insurrection for independence, and preventing a civil war with basically nothing but strength of will. Those kinds of experiences can really break a person and make for a very compelling and believable back story for real human beings.
Cole does an exceptional job in general of painting a vivid, believable country that feels not only real but very much of our world. The problems that Njaza experiences are not unique. They are problems many countries who have had to fight against oppression are experiencing as a whole nation tries to reconcile with everything they were robbed of, the trauma of it all, and also somehow try to move forward at the same time. My dog died last year and I literally don’t remember the week after. I don’t know how you can both grieve for the loss of something you love and save a country (full of other people dealing with grief) from ruin at the same time.
There are some plot points that are telegraphed so hard that it’s annoying when the characters finally figure something out like 5 chapters after they should have, but on the whole, this is an extremely smart book that doesn’t patronize its readers, tells the story of what it takes to unlearn literally everything you have ever been taught, and that courage can come in many forms.