Thank you to Net-Galley for providing this ARC. See this review on Goodreads
If the entire book had been as brilliant as its last five chapters, this’d easily have been a four star review. Court conspiracy and political intrigue? Check. Glittering balls and stunning costumes? Check. Morally ambiguous authority figures? Check. Poison, treachery and murder? Check. Blood everywhere? Check. A queen so badass she has RUNES on her EYELIDS, wears a METAL CORSET, and has NO HAIR because IT ALL GOT ZAPPED OFF BY LIGHTNING?? Check.
Sadly the rest of the book is not like this. The rest of the book is low-budget Hunger Games, which takes place within the confines of a few out-buildings and a greenhouse.
This still has the potential to be a good old fashioned fun fight to the death, except that oh, the characters wear masks, don’t have names, and don’t bother interacting with each other. Apparently, there’s an entire court out there –we don’t see any of it. Instead, it’s 500 pages of Sal’s internal monologue, Maud washing Sal’s clothes, and Sal having baths**… interspersed with occasional grisly death.
(**in which they never washed their hair idk that just really got to me)
I was attracted to this book for three reasons: genderqueer narrator, highwaymen, and assassins. So let’s look at them one by one:
- Sal’s gender fluidity is handled quite well, as other reviewers have described. It’s refreshing how it’s treated as just a fact of Sal’s life, and not a plot point. Whoooo for the normalisation of non-cis gender identities in fantasy!
- The highwayman bit lasts for one embarrassing chapter, so the less said about that the better.
- The assassins however — now THIS was a complete let down. The Queen’s Left Hand – for all Sal might insist that they are intimidating and deadly– are seriously tame.
The Left Hand don’t actually get to do anything assassiny. All they do is swan around in sexy yet highly impractical masks, look at recruits, poke recruits in the arm, be generally just quite friendly to recruits… and finish off each other’s sentences as they monologue about the rules of the trials, which was either deliberately creepy or just bad writing. We rely on Sal just telling us that the Left Hand are badass, and the emotional impact of that is zero. You can say ‘Emeralds muscles were pure beauty’ all you like, but it doesn’t mean crap unless she actually does something other than pour tea. You can tell us that Ruby is ‘the very picture of bored grace’ or ‘all feigned happiness and sarcasm’ but it comes across as hollow when you’re not actually letting his actions speak for themselves. This make Maddy sad, because the whole full-face mask thing, not to mention being named after jewels literally on the Queen’s left hand, is super effing cool.
The book also has the tendency to wallow in Sal’s #Dark #Ruthless desires for revenge in the middle of the occasional kill scenes. However, all of the ‘my soul is cold I am silent as the night’ stuff comes across as a bit Lego Batman, because it’s spliced atop of writing which is otherwise fairly unsophisticated. Similarly, Sal’s other emotions are teenage and simplistic. I couldn’t engage fully with Sal’s the revenge subplot, because the rest of the time the book doesn’t acknowledge Sal’s trauma and anger, or explore any memory of what life in Nacea was like.
The cheesy romance was a big deal breaker for me. From Elise and Sal’s first meeting – during which Elise is actually happy to be robbed by a highwayman – I was already feeling myself cringe. Of course, after three days of seeing each other for one hour periods (during which Elise cannot even see Sal’s face or know Sal’s real name) the pair are utterly consumed by True Wuv. I’d have thought that someone as upstanding and principled as Elise might be put off by the fact that Sal’s auditioning to become a professional murderer, but no. So Elise seductively writes some stuff on Sal’s arm in ink, which Sal refuses to wash off for a week. (Seriously Sal, what is it with you and not washing properly??!) Meanwhile, oh-so-hardcore Sal is all ‘rendered senseless’ this, while Elise is all ‘fluttering pulse’ that.
The romance weighs heavily on the novel as a whole, because Elise is the only character relationship which gets any serious development, apart from Sal’s friendship with Maud the maid.
This novel has a serious problem with basic world-building. I’m all for not clogging your pages down with purple prose, but I honestly have no idea to make of the entire compound in which these books events take place apart from the fact that there’s lots of trees. Oh, there’s also a river – although we only get told that two thirds of the way through. The queen’s palace seems to be nearby somewhere – or is it actually outside the grounds? The courtiers have their lodgings around too –but where and how? It’s deeply unclear. And can we talk about how Erland seems to be a country made up entirely of aristocracy? That makes zero sense.
When characters swop between rooms or even across entire towns in between lines — without the act of movement being specified – things get confusing. When characters sometimes appear in ongoing conversations without their entrance having been previously mentioned, things get even more difficult to follow. A minor issue which reflects this problem as a whole is the fact that whenever Sal wanted to go anywhere, they would just ‘climb onto a roof’, and that was that. You can’t just climb onto every roof – what did the building look like? What sort of building was it? Were there exposed timbers? Window frames?? Ivy?? HOW??!! It bugged me so much.
There’s a fantastic political plot hidden behind all this filler, involving invasion, conspiracy, sexy tattooed magicians and some genuinely terrifying shadow monsters. But unfortunately, with the exception of a quick jolly mid-way through during which Sal kills some dick’ed noble, we don’t get to explore any of these fantastically cool concepts until the final quarter of the book. I’d be keen to pick up the sequel if the great momentum from the end of this book is carried forward, preferably involving the Left Hand actually fighting people. Otherwise – nah thanks.