The Reluctant Queen, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Saturday, September 09, 2017

TITLE: The Reluctant Queen
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: Fantasy
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 2nd in the Queens of Renthia series

Filled with political intrigue, violent magic, and malevolent spirits, the mesmerizing second book in Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia epic fantasy trilogy.

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 . . .

And those spirits want to kill you.

It’s the first lesson that every Renthian learns.

Not long ago, Daleina used her strength and skill to survive those spirits and assume the royal throne. Since then, the new queen has kept the peace and protected the humans of her land. But now for all her power, she is hiding a terrible secret: she is dying. And if she leaves the world before a new heir is ready, the spirits that inhabit her beloved realm will run wild, destroying her cities and slaughtering her people.

Naelin is one such person, and she couldn’t be further removed from the Queen—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her world is her two children, her husband, and the remote village tucked deep in the forest that is her home, and that’s all she needs. But when Ven, the Queens champion, passes through the village, Naelin’s ambitious husband proudly tells him of his wife’s ability to control spirits—magic that Naelin fervently denies. She knows that if the truth of her abilities is known, it will bring only death and separation from those she loves.

But Ven has a single task: to find the best possible candidate to protect the people of Aratay. He did it once when he discovered Daleina, and he’s certain he’s done it again. Yet for all his appeals to duty, Naelin is a mother, and she knows her duty is to her children first and foremost. Only as the Queen’s power begins to wane and the spirits become emboldened—even as ominous rumors trickle down from the north—does she realize that the best way to keep her son and daughter safe is to risk everything.

Sarah Beth Durst established a place of dark wonder in The Queen of Blood, and now the stakes are even higher as the threat to the Queen and her people grows both from within and beyond the borders of Aratay in this riveting second novel of the Queens of Renthia series.
Spoilers for book 1 in this review! I suggest you don't start here, go back to The Queen of Blood. It's worth it.

The Reluctant Queen starts as Deleina, still new in her role as Queen, discovers she's gravely ill. She's got something called the False Death, and seemingly a quite advanced case. It's an illness without a cure, which is bad enough, but the situation is particularly dangerous to the whole Kingdom of Aratay for two main reasons. One, the nature of the False Death means that when a fit is triggered Daleina falls into a sort of short-lived coma so intense that she appears to be dead, even to the spirits. And when the Queen is death, the spirits consider themselves released from her orders not to kill humans and go on a rampage until an Heir orders them to stop, or, in this case, until the Queen revives. Two, this is happening so soon after the Coronation Massacre that killed every heir but Daleina, that there hasn't been time to even find suitable Candidates, let alone Heirs.

Being the level-headed and responsible person that she is, and someone who always puts her Kingdom first, Daleina's first reaction is to tell her Champions and task them to do their best to find her a suitable Heir. It's going to be a challenge. They've got just a few months. So many of the best died in the Coronation Massacre, and after seeing what happened, there's been a bit of an exodus from the Academies, so most of the students there are basically children.

Champion Ven, accompanied by Captain Alet, of the Queen's Guard, soon realises there's no point in following the usual ways and trying to find his Candidate in one of the Academies. He decides the way to go is to find someone with power that somehow "missed out on her chance", as he puts it. Someone who, for whatever reason, didn't go the Academy route.

He finds just such a person in Naelin. A fully grown woman, married and with two young children, Naelin has a huge amount of raw, natural power. The thing is, she "missed out" on her chance to be a Candidate quite intentionally. Naelin has no interest in putting her life and that of her family in danger by mucking about with spirits. She knows how that turns out -with death and tragedy. She wants nothing better than a simple life where she can protect her children. So when her useless and ambitious husband betrays her by making her power clear to the visiting Champion, she's not at all interested in meekly going with them.

This second book is maybe not quite as fantastic as the first one, but that might be simply because that one surprised me so much with the freshness of its worldbuilding and the subversiveness of Durst's plotting and characterisation. Much of that is still the case here, the subversiveness most of all.

I just adore the way Durst refuses to do the expected, and that can be seen really clearly in how Naelin deals with her husband. He is truly bad as a husband. He's not mean or evil, but he's not at all interested in who Naelin really is and what she wants. When that becomes clear and Naelin realises she has given him one too many chances, she cuts him out of her life. She will not make him into a villain, since she knows he's not one, but he's just not the man for her. I still expected much angst about how the children need a father, and how horrible to destroy the family. I didn't get that. Naelin knows she's important as well. When she wavers, it's only for a minute, till she remembers the very good reasons why she left him in the first place.

I also liked that the book turned into a sort of mystery at one point, one related to Daleina's illness. It was all quite intriguing, and I really liked the way Durst found out of the seemingly impossible situation she'd created for her characters. It all clicked really well and made sense. There's a lot of darkness along the way (the spirits are still not light and fluffy), but as with the first book, things don't feel oppressive.

There was a particular storyline that I started out hating. It did improve, but it was still probably the weakest element in the book. Hamon, ready to try anything if it increases the chances of finding a cure for Daleina, grits his teeth and gets in touch with his mother. See, his mother is an incredibly amoral and just as incredibly talented herbalist. She can create potions to do pretty much anything, and she does. Hamon ran away from her after she used his developing talents in her crimes, and he's taken pains to avoid her finding out where he is, but needs must. So the woman arrives at the castle and is set to work, in a tower room with several guards at the door, to analyse Daleina's blood. I found myself really disliking this. First of all, Hamon's mother is portrayed as a bit too all-powerful. There's nothing she can't do, including pretty much mind control. I hate having characters like that in my books. Secondly, Hamon's precautions are a bit lackadaisical. He warns the guards about her, but he does it in a way that seems calculated not to have the right effect. Just "do not touch her, do not take anything she tries to give you", but no explanation as to why. It's as if he's trying to make them not take him seriously. Would it have been so difficult to explain that it's because she can create and has previously been known to use potions that can do this and that, and that she can administer them in very creative ways? As a result of Hamon's poor communication, Daleina's sister pretty much immediately falls under his mother's spell, her mind manipulated by potions. Sigh. Fortunately, this does get resolved before I feared, but it goes on for half the book.

Still, that is a relatively minor flaw. It's a very satisfying book, and I really enjoyed the last little bit, right after all had been resolved. It's a very clear instance of sequel-baiting, but it was so intriguing that I didn't mind.



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