What’s this? A review? I actually kicked myself to write this review for multiple reasons. This book is a debut and I want to support debut authors. I just finished it but I’m on holiday and cannot yet meet my bookish friend in a café to talk about it. This book is so far up my alley I am devastated that I didn’t write it. (It’s written with far more beauty and panache than I could have, though). Also, Luca Fontaine. Another reason I’m reviewing it is that I think I might be the first for CBR and that I think several of the fantasy-lovers here would really enjoy it!
The premise: the queen of a confederation of city states is poisoned, and her best friend, the low-born scholar Lysande Prior, must both avenge her death and choose her successor from among the rulers of the other four city-states. The problem is, Lysande believes one of those rulers is responsible for the queen’s murder. She can’t trust any of them (not even the extremely interesting and unusual Luca Fontaine, whose butt looks great in a pair of tight riding pants). To make matters more complicated, there are rumors of another uprising of the dead queen’s fiercest rival, the White Queen, who is an ‘elemental’ (she can use an elemental magic but also possesses the power to compel people with her mind if she comes too close). Lysande must unravel the secrets around her while staying alive and hiding her drug addiction.
This book isn’t perfect. The plot takes a little while to get going (the first few chapters are very slow, a little too focused on Lysande’s drug addiction, and I found it hard to latch onto any of the characters) but this changes when the four city-rulers are introduced. You get Dante, who seems like the slow-witted northern barbarian stereotype at first but who shows a softer side; Jale, the pretty-boy southerner who is always smiling; Cassia, the hard-hitting warrior; and LUCA FONTAINE. Luca Fontaine is possibly my #1 favourite thing about this book. The dance of wits and cunning he and Lysande perform around each other is far sexier than it has any right to be. There are also some advisors and attendants from Lysande’s own city-state to further flesh out the cast, among them Lord Derset, who is happy to overlook Lysande’s lack of nobility and who has a history with the dead queen, and Litany, an attendant who quickly shows herself to be capable of far more than clever tailoring (though that skill also comes in handy); and a couple reliable military types.
For a book that the back-cover blurb describes as ‘Machiavellian’, Lysande’s slow realization that she loves being in a position of power is not as horrifying as it could be. In fact, one of the subplots/character arcs is Lysande growing to become friends with some of the other characters. (There is one particular friendship that develops in such awkward spurts that it is really adorable!) Her relationship with her attendant Litany could have been problematic bordering on abusive, but Lysande–accustomed to the derision from nobility–is careful to address the power imbalances that arise and to make sure Litany is comfortable (and well-compensated) for the risks she takes. Lysande’s drug addiction is a problem–as is the way she excuses it to herself–but not to the extent of the alcoholism of generic female thriller protagonists, nor is it glamorized beyond the POV of Lysande herself. The sex is actually really well done: it’s certainly dark, but it leaves a lot to the imagination and is thus, in my opinion, much more sensuous than it might otherwise have been. There are three characters Lysande is romantically/sexually involved with (one of them is a woman; this is normal for their world) and they each bring out different aspects of who she is and what she desires.
Perhaps the thing I love most about this book is the worldbuilding. There are really good plot and character developments around the elitism and unfair class structures that are inherent in this society and the neighboring ones that go beyond magic vs. non-magic and poor vs. rich. The different city-states and their hinterlands (of which we see three) feel vibrantly different–not just in how they’re described, but on a more fundamental level. But the best part, for me, is that Lysande isn’t just a scholar in name. The character thinks and breathes scholarship–poetry, philosophy, history, even maths. She uses it to inform her worldview and underline her political stratagems. Luca Fontaine doesn’t just have a nice butt, he also can stand eye-for-eye (literally) against her in battles of wits.
If you love political fantasy and ‘strong female characters’ who aren’t just a cliché, I strongly encourage you to give this book a try! It is a little pricy right now (though I don’t regret paying full price for it), but remember that if it’s possible for your area, you can also encourage your local library to purchase it and support a debut author that way.