The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Tuesday, July 25, 2017

TITLE: The Queen of Blood
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: Kingdom of Aratay
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: First in the Queens of Renthia series

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow...

But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still only human, and no matter how strong or good they are, the threat of danger always looms.

Because the queen’s position is so precarious, young women are specially chosen to train as her heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Meanwhile, the disgraced champion Ven has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. When Daleina and Ven join forces, they embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land... before it’s bathed in blood.
This is the sort of book that, if you only read the back cover, might seem like pretty generic YA fantasy. It's anything but! A huge thank you to Carrie S at Smart Bitches Trashy Books for the excellent review, otherwise I never would have picked it up.

The Queen of Blood is set in a world where humans live in a sort of armed truce with the spirits that reside in every bit of nature. There are spirits in the wood, in the ice, in the fire, in the earth, in the air and in the water, and every single one of them wishes to push the humans out of what they feel is their world. The only thing holding them back from killing humans and driving them out is the human Queen, who is able to control them, to a certain extent, and mostly keep them from attacking.

In such a world, it's crucial to have someone ready to take over as soon as the Queen dies, someone with enough power to be able to control the spirits. The way it works is that the Queen's Champions select Candidates (usually from Academies devoted to training any girls with power -and it's only girls, not boys, who have power) and train them to be able to pass the tests that allow them to become Heirs.

That is the future that Deleina is determined should be hers. When she was a child, spirits attacked her village. Deleina was able to protect her family with her powers, and they were the only survivors. This has made her determined to develop her abilities enough to, if not become Queen, be able to better protect those around her. She's probably one of the students with least raw power in her Academy, but she's hard-working and conscientious and very, very determined.

And I'll leave the plot description at that, just the basic setup, because one of the things I loved most about this book was that I had no idea where it was going to go next. There were plenty of times when my jaw just dropped. I only realise how much a lot of what I read is a bit predictable and how much I crave being surprised when I read books like this.

One of the surprises was how feminist and subversive of bad fantasy tropes this book is. Part of me was expecting demonising (or at least negative portrayal) of other women: Daleina's fellow students at the Academy, the Queen, all clear rivals to our protagonists... and what does it say about our world that enough books have done this that I was expecting it (even if kind of dreading it)? Durst surprised me, and I loved what she did here. The students forge a strong sisterhood. They are rivals and they understand this, but they are invested in making it a fair, healthy competition, and that doesn't preclude friendship. My favourite was what Durst did with Merecot (sp? I listened to the audiobook), who's the strongest student in terms of control over the spirits, and who is extremely ambitious and ruthless about it. She's prickly and can be mean, but even she is not portrayed as bad. She and Daleina forge a real friendship, even if one with a fair bit of conflict. And the Queen! We know almost from the start that something is wrong there, and that the destruction of villages such as Daleina's is down to the Queen's actions (or inactions). Surely she is a villain? Nope. Again, she's a very flawed person, but even she is not portrayed as a villain. I loved it.

Another surprise: the relationship between Daleina and Ven, the Champion who takes her on as his candidate and trains her to become an Heir. I sort of assumed there was going to be some sort of romance there between them, but there wasn't! Which was great, because the book worked so much better because of that. There is romance, and each of them has their own relationships, but their relationship was one that felt so much fresher and new because of the lack of the romance.

Daleina herself is surprising as well. She seems a bit tentative at first, and she is probably the least ambitious of the candidates, but she is absolutely not tentative when it comes to doing what is best for her country. Durst goes places with this that I wasn't expecting, and I loved it.

I also loved that the world is really original. There's a real darkness here (things can get really bloody!), and Durst doesn't guarantee that even nice characters survive. There's also an interesting environmental message here: what happens when humanity seeks to impose its will over nature rather than work with it? It's made clear that the reason spirits can be controlled by humans is that they need humans as much as humans need the spirits. Each are essential to keeping the world in balance, so the power to influence and control the spirits has evolved to ensure that. Most women with power use it to control, but Daleina is not powerful enough for that. She coaxes the spirits, uses her limited power to distract them from destructiveness and push them towards an expression of their own power and impulses that helps humans (to grow, to build, rather than to kill and destroy). This is one of the elements I hope to see explored in future books.

MY GRADE: An A-. Highly recommended


Marianne McA,  28 July 2017 at 13:25  

Thanks. I bought it on the strength of your review, and stayed up till nearly three reading it.

I really enjoyed it. In retrospect, it's a pretty bleak read, though it didn't strike me as that while I was reading. Nothing seemed to escape entirely unscathed, and there wasn't the promise of hope that normally offsets the trauma the characters have been through.

Part of the joy of the book is that it deviates from the norm - I loved that the wizarding school was flawed, not because of evil forces, but because that educational system worked really well to produce the school leavers the state required.

But still, I could have done with a little bit of the conventional 'light at the end of a tunnel' to encourage me to read on. (And I made the mistake of reading the blurb for book 2, which seems to suggest that Daleina has the issues going forward that one would have expected her to have - which on the one hand is great, because that's how the story should unfold, but on the other my inner reader always looks for happiness and kittens rather than hardship and struggle.)

I will read on (apart from anything else, I want to know what happened to Merecot) but I feel the need read some really light & fluffy thing first.

Rosario 29 July 2017 at 08:18  

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Marianne! You're right, it's funny how the book doesn't feel overwhelmingly dark while you're reading it, when there's really very little positive going on. But I'm not sure I agree with you on there being no hope. I felt that Daleina's approach of working with the spirits, rather than trying to bend them to her will, did give a little bit of hope for a possible future where there is less constant danger and conflict. However, I'm now reading book 2 and there's very little on this topic. And yeah, you definitely want to take a break before you read The Reluctant Queen. Daleina is really not catching a break at the moment!

Darlynne 29 July 2017 at 20:04  

How refreshing to have a book that doesn't go in the direction and to the places we've come to dread. For that alone, I'm very interested. Thanks for the review.

Rosario 30 July 2017 at 09:26  

Darlynne: So true! Do read it, I think you'll like it! :)

Anonymous,  2 August 2017 at 14:08  

I'm buying this because of your review as well. This really looks good. Thank You. --Keishon

Janine Ballard 4 August 2017 at 23:59  

This sounds really good. Thanks for the review!

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