Sunday, August 6, 2017

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

The Queen of Blood is book 1 in Sarah Beth Durst's "Queens of Renthia" Series.  I've seen other reviews compare the book to Naomi Novik's "Uprooted" and the comparison makes sense to some extent - the book is a retelling/subversion of the classic chosen hero/fairy tale (but not "fae" - this is not a fae story) trope in a world dominated by woods (Cities are created from magically altering trees) and magic.  That said, the book is a lot more cynical than Uprooted, although it has its lighter moments as well.  But this is not a bad thing really - I enjoyed this book a lot (and just finished its sequel, review to come soon).

The World of Renthia is one in which mankind lives amongst Spirits of six different elements - ice, wood, water, fire, air, and earth - who created the world.  The problem is this: The Spirits hate humanity and one of their top two wants (in addition to wanting always to simply use their element to grow things) is always to kill/destroy humans.  In order to stop the Spirits from destroying humanity, nature seems to have evolved in the Spirits a desire for them to choose a human Queen from one of the many humans who has innate magical talent to speak/control the spirits.  These Queens, of which there are five - one for each of the 5 countries in the world, are given control of the spirits of their country and can command them to do no harm.  Should a Queen die or fall however, the Spirits would go wild and try to destroy everything.

------------------------------------------------Plot Summary---------------------------------------------------
In this book, Daleina is a young girl in the outer village of Greytree in the Country of Aratay when her village is attacked and destroyed by Spirits.  Only Daleina's family survives, as a result of her manifesting her affinity to control the spirits, albeit a weak one.   Ven, one of the most renowned Champions of the Queen, who has the duty to train new powerful women to be the heirs of the Queen, discovers the village and presses the Queen for an answer as to why this could happen when the Queen is still in command.  But the Queen only responds by essentially exiling Ven in disgrace in order to prevent him from telling anyone that her power may not be absolute.

As years pass, Daleina winds up at an academy to train girls/women with the power to command the spirits, but she is barely strong enough to stay in the academy and clearly isn't powerful enough to be chosen by a Champion to be an heir.  But Ven has other ideas, and Daleina's tragic backstory and commitment to make sure that her family is safe drive the two of them together.  Together they try to train so that Daleina could become the next Queen.....but the unrest that destroyed Greytree was only the beginning, and the two of them will be forced to take hard choices in order to try and save the very country itself

The Queen of Blood at times seems to be multiple types of books:  It's a story about a potential Chosen One!  It's a story about girls with magic learning to control their powers in school and learning to be friends!  It's a story about a sinister conspiracy that threatens to kill all of the Country!  It's a credit to Durst's writing that the story for the most part works really well.  The book struggles a bit in that several characters aren't developed as well as they could be due to time skips - we really get to know three maybe four of Daleina's friends at School, but there are several others who the book acts like are just as important later who we barely see at all, so I didn't really care about them.  Similarly, the main love interest, the healer, well we don't really get to know him as well as I'd like.

That said, the main characters are terrific - Daleina has a strong voice, as does Ven, and even the headmistress Hanna who is a smaller point of view.  Oddly the best and most interesting side character - another student Mericot - disappears relatively early and only appears very briefly in the background thereafter (she plays a bigger role in the sequel) - so that's a bit of a disappointment, but this isn't her story.  The story has several jaw dropping cliffhangers that will keep you guessing, and for the most part, everything comes together really really well.

Again, this is a cynical book at times - major characters WILL die in this book and our Main Character multiple times decides the best way to get what she wants is to seemingly ask the local spirits to Attack/Kill herself (it makes sense in context, but man is it jarring).  This is not a book where the main character is ever going to learn to make peace with the spirits and to rule them in a friendly fashion - in fact she's warned quite clearly about the danger of that and the book never goes into that trope. Then again, it's not dark solely for the purpose of darkness either.  It's a pretty good balance and the result is really really good.

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