And now for something a little different—I’ve recently read all three books in the Queens of Renthia trilogy by Sarah Beth Durst and I have some feels. Today’s review is a roundup of all three books: The Queen of Blood, The Reluctant Queen, and The Queen of Sorrow. WARNING: As this review covers three books, there are inevitable spoilers for the first two novels.
Don’t trust the fire, for it will burn you.
Don’t trust the ice, for it will freeze you.
Don’t trust the water, for it will drown you.
Don’t trust the air, for it will choke you.
Don’t trust the earth, for it will bury you.
Don’t trust the trees, for they will rip you, rend you, tear you, kill you dead.”
A child of the outskirts of the Queendom of Aratay, within the larger world of Renthia, Daleina has lived her entire life in fear. Just as everyone else. Wild elemental spirits—of earth, air, fire, water, stone, and ice—live in every part of the forest, and they all have one thing in common: they hate humans. Every Renthian child is born into the fear of death at the hands of an angry spirit; each home is fortified with charms and protections to make sure that the spirits stay outside and that the family within remains safe and hale. Daleina’s family is no different, but together, they build out what small happiness they can afford in the face of ever-present danger. The people of Aratay are pragmatic, especially those in the treetops far away from the capitol. Plus, the people trust in their Queen—the one woman who is linked to all of the spirits of Aratay, who will protect her people by holding those spirits in check.
But then one day Daleina’s village is brutally attacked by a horde of spirits working together—unheard of, unprecedented!—and everyone is killed. Daleina and her family alone survive because she discovers a rare and powerful gift: Daleina possesses an affinity for spirits and the power to compel them to do her bidding.
This makes Daleina a potential heir to the Queen, and she is whisked away from a powerful, highly valued, and very rare ability seen only in a few women in this spirit-overrun world.
You think you’ve heard this story before, right? Daleina is whisked away to an Academy, where she meets a wise headmaster, finds a stern-faced mentor with a heart of gold underneath his prickliness, makes lifelong friends—including one who may turn out to be her archnemesis.
All of this is true—but the reason why The Blood Queen is so freaking good is that Daleina is a supremely underpowered character. From the first moment she attempts the entrance exams into the illustrious Academy, it becomes very clear (and many characters continue to remind her) that Daleina isn’t good enough. She’s weak, when it comes to control over the spirits—certainly the weakest in her class and can’t hold a flame to others, like Merecot, who can control spirits with barely a thought.
But Daleina is determined. She tries. She studies, she works hard, she grids it out. And, while she knows she will never be strong enough to be Queen, she thinks she can be a worthy Heir—perhaps even one that could help administrate, be diplomatic, or focus on reshaping the future of Aratay. Above all, Daleina understands and takes the responsibility of protecting the people of Aratay very seriously, having lived first-hand through the massacre of her village and neighbors—whereas the other students (like Merecot) and Heirs take their powers and safety for granted.
So instead, she finds a different way to work with spirits. She feeds their emotions and coaxes them into action, instead of using pure force and power to compel them. She becomes wise and creative in her skill… and when disaster strikes Aratay, blossoming from the treachery of a deep corruption within, Daleina is ready to do her part to save the land she loves.
Harper Voyager | September 2016 | Paperback 368 pages | Fantasy
So, I’ve been holding off on reading this series—I’ve had The Queen of Blood on my shelf for three years, and while the premise of the book sounded interesting and I’m a big fan of Sarah Beth Durst’s, the timing was never quite right. When I received a copy of book three, The Queen of Sorrow, and coincidentally had a long plane ride ahead of me, it was game on. And… I ended up devouring this first book in a single sitting on the first leg of my flight.
There’s a lot that is familiar in this novel, from the magical school to the magical chosen one–except that Daleina is kind of the antithesis of the Chosen One. She’s supremely underpowered, in a magical world and system that only values brute strength–and it’s exactly the reason why Aratay faces such disaster at the hands of its powerful, beautiful Queen Fara, and exactly why Daleina is the perfect person, for the perfect time. I loved the idea of a world in which literally everything is trying to kill you, and the power dynamics that must rule such a world. I loved getting to know Daleina, seeing the events that shaped her, and her compassion and stubborn idealism in the face of impossible corruption and doom. I also loved getting to know others who would play major roles in the rest of the series: the powerful and ambitious Merecot, the gruff but kind Champion Ven, the headmistress Hannah. The Queen of Blood is a *dark* novel, too–imagine if in Harry Potter, all of Harry’s friends, including Ron and Hermione, die at the hands of Lord Voldmort. That’s kinda what Sarah Beth Durst does here. Yeah. I KNOW.
The Queen of Blood completely hooked me–took me by surprise, played with tropes of power and leadership in ways that I loved and haven’t seen in ages (if ever), and I was 100% sold on this series. I *loved* this first book. So I was thrilled that I had books 2 and 3 at the ready for the rest of my trip.
Harper Voyager | July 2017 | Hardcover 360 pages | Fantasy
Enter book 2, The Reluctant Queen. [WARNING: SPOILERS WILL ENSUE FOR BOOK 1, SO IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW, LOOK AWAY.]
Queen Daleina of Aratay has survived, but has no Heirs–the massacre at the coronation grove secured the death of every single other powerful and potential leader, and Aratay is in a precarious position. And then, Daleina starts collapsing. It appears that she has the Waking Death–an insidious disease that strikes slowly, while its victim experiences bouts of unconsciousness (deaths) that eventually lead to one final death. Worse, Daleina loses control of the spirits whenever she collapses, and even the briefest lapse in control means the deaths of many at the hands of the spirits across the land. Daleina is desperate for an Heir so that she can step aside and leave the throne she never wanted, for the safety of her people–but Heirs are hard to come by. That is, until Champion Ven finds power in an unlikely source–a woodswoman with two young children, far in the outskirts of Aratay. Naelin has always known she has had power, but has hidden it her entire life. When word of the Champion comes to her small village, however, her over-eager husband stages a way to reveal Naelin’s true abilities to Ven–and Daleina may just have a new hope for the future.
In this second novel, the focus shifts from solely being on Daleina and introduces a new protagonist in the form of mother and woodswoman, Naelin. This is always a bit of a gamble–especially when a series has started by building up a different central character. I liked the variation in this new entry, as well as the high stakes that make Naelin’s role necessary. The deeper you get into the Renthia series, the more you realize just how precarious the position of the Queens–and safety of all of their people–truly is. Daleina cares only for her people and her country, and so immediately starts to look for an Heir and will abdicate the second one emerges; meanwhile, Naelin’s priorities are… different. Before anything else, Naelin is a mother to her two children: they are her reason for living and the only reason she actually agrees to train to become a potential Queen is to keep her children safe.
While I enjoyed reading about Naelin and both understand and appreciate the urgency of this second potential Queen, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed in the shift of perspective and focus from Daleina to Naelin. Not only is this because I already had a Queen I was rooting for (#TeamDaleina), but because Naelin’s entire purpose is so different than the motivations that governed the first book. This is not a bad thing–a mother’s love for her children and desire to protect them is a powerful thing, and not something that gets a lot of play as a central pillar of character development in modern SFF. And yet… I can’t help but feel a little hoodwinked, as the series seemed to be about something else (who are the spirits, where did they come from, how can a supremely under-powered Queen hope to save her people and her world in the face of danger).
That said, there are plenty of things to like about The Reluctant Queen. The political machinations of the Queen of Semo–none other than Merecot, Daleina’s childhood friend–are cunning, ambitious, and brutal. (And, in a dark way, totally awesome. I’m so glad Merecot came back!) Also, I loved several of the subplots that emerged in this middle novel: the tension between Hamon and his mother, the reemergence of Alin (Daleina’s sister), the complicated figure that is Captain Alet.
And whoo boy, what an ending–talk about some BIG game changers for book 3.
Harper Voyager | May 2018 | Hardcover 432 pages | Fantasy
[WARNING: Spoilers will follow for book 2. If you don’t want to know, LOOK AWAY!]
I’ll start with a confession here–this was my least favorite of all three books.
At the end of book 2, Daleina is saved from being poisoned and maintains her crown–but in the dramatic events leading to her final “death” and rebirth, Aratay now has two queens. Ruling the land as joint Queens seems like a good idea at first (double the queens, double the protection, right?), but Naelin and Daleina still face the same problem: they have no Heirs.
And then, there’s Queen Merecot of Semo, stirring the pot again, when she sends her spirits into Aratay to kill the wolf protector Bayn, and steal away Naelin’s two children.
When Naelin learns her children were taken, she loses it–she is torn apart by rage and grief, and pushes the spirits of Aratay in pursuit beyond the borders of their land… effectively killing huge swaths of the Queendom. Daleina is able to regain some control and begs Naelin to see reason, but the damage she has wrought and continues to inflict with her emotions upon the land have disastrous consequences. Naelin will not be appeased–she will have her children back and she will have blood, and damn the consequences. Meanwhile, Semo is being torn apart by its own spirits (hence part of the reason for Merecot’s aggression), and time is running short for the Queens of Renthia.
The Queen of Sorrow is meant to be the third and final novel in the linear trilogy that is The Queens of Renthia series–although there is a fourth book planned (from what I understand it can be read as a standalone and follows a different Queen to the islands of the south). As such, it is meant to provide answers–what are the spirits, where did they come from, what is Bayn, and how can the Queens bring peace to their land? So… some of this is answered. Kind of. We also get a few brief glimpses of other Queens of Renthia (they’re each struggling), but no real answers. And that, dear readers, is incredibly frustrating. I like a good open-ended story, and I like it when characters who were so sure they were right and mandated by destiny actually find out this is not true… but in The Queen of Sorrow, the lack of closure or organization just makes the series feel a touch unfinished.
The other reason I couldn’t get as much behind this third book was, again, with Naelin. To have children is to have one’s heart outside one’s body, as the old adage goes (or something like that), right? Such is absolutely true of Naelin in The Queen of Sorrow… which is understandable but perhaps just not really the story I cared to read about. (I have discovered that I’m not a huge fan of the one burning love story–whether it comes in the form of familial, maternal love, or romantic love.) The lack of empathy Naelin has for others outside of her immediate priorities (her children and Ven, namely), is slightly frustrating–especially when Daleina has worked so hard to keep everyone safe, even at great personal cost.
On the bright side, I loved the nuanced treatment of Queen Merecot and the relationship between Merecot and Daleina. Theirs is a Xavier x Eric type rivalry and friendship–there is respect and love underneath the fundamental differences between the two women and I love seeing a relationship like this in a fantasy novel.
Ultimately, I enjoyed this last book and finished it quickly… but I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed that the series turned to spend so much time with characters I felt so much less involved and invested in. Still, I’ll be back for the fourth standalone novel eventually.
The Queen of Blood: 8 – Excellent
The Reluctant Queen: 7 – Very Good
The Queen of Sorrow: 6 – Good
Overall Series: 7 – Very Good
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