Ok, I give up. I’ve typed this review so many times, several different days and it just disappears. So I am going to skip the “this is the info you can find on Goodreads that tells you what the book is about” and just go straight into the review.
Queen Talyien (Tali) is the combination of “strong female character” with “chosen one” with “what if it all went wrong?” and this is done masterfully.
We start the story with her explaining that she’s basically ruling alone because she kinda screwed up and her husband left her (and their son) the night before they were meant to be crowned King and Queen of a country that is factioned and fractioned and is just a lot of fighting lords for land and ruling over the others.
Then she gets a letter from her husband to come and meet him at the neighbouring country where apparently he ha been having a comfortable life for hte last 5 years without bothering to make himself known to her or you know, his son (I didn’t have much respect for the husband, despite Tali trying hard to blame herself for him leaving). She is told not to go by her counsellors but decides to try to fix her marriage, for the sake of their son.
Know, one thing to know is that Tali was born to be Queen. She was educated for it, she had an arranged marriage and everything, all her life has been centered around becoming the Queen her father wants/wanted her to be. She has a purpose to fulfill and any time she has strayed from it, she pays the consequence. Her whole being is trying to meet the expectations, to hold everything together while the rest blame her or praise her or even thwart her. I identified with her so much on this. When you are defined by the expectations of others, when you have been brought up to live to those expectations, and to be them, it becomes slowly clear that you will never fulfill all of them. Because you just can’t. You can’t be what others want you to be and forgo who you are for the sake of everyone else.
So when she chooses to try to make the most of this opportunity to make everything right, and to not be the only one holding it all together because her husband is off doing whatever it is he is doing. She goes. She is doing the best she can.
Of course, this ends up with an assasination attempt (and by ends I don’t mean she dies and that’s it) and she’s left alone and in a difficult position in a foreign country, having to figure it out as she goes. This is where she fully shines and the story truly becomes the best. It is once she is out on her own, having to fend for herself and do and be just herself that she shines, that both you as a reader and Tali as her own, slowly chip away at the expectations and find the real Talyien.
The restof the cast is well fleshed and have their own unique characteristics but to explain them, would be to ruin the experience of meeitng them and then finding where they fit in the story. All I can say is that I have a soft spot for Khine.
The book is gritty and has a lot of violence in it. There is also some attempted sexual assault, a lot of gaslighting and abuse. However, this doesn’t retrack from it but rather gives it more depth. And it also has humour to contrast it, at times I was so angry and then suddenly wanting to laugh.
To me, the book was a delight to read but it was also a book that made me angry. It reminded me of how men manipulate capable women for so many reasons, and undermine them. They chip away at them and do their best to destroy them and somehow we still come out alive and victorious. So I was angry and laughing and sad and joyous and I couldn’t stop reading because I needed to know what would happen and if there was hope.
So, do I recommend this book? Yes. But this is NOT a Young Adult book, Tali is an adult, she has a child, she is a Queen, not a princess. Her problems aren’t the ones a YA heroine would encounter, and the whole book is definitely more about older characters and different stages of life.
If you liked The Poppy War, then this may be feel like a great book, as it reminded me a bit fo the feeling I had after reading Poppy War (but they are not the same, this has no Academia side and is more mature, more adult). And it has that same world building magic that Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash have.
And if you follow my reviews, it has the secret ingredient that makes me love a book… grief. (This is a lot less about death of someone and more about loss of identity, about loss in general).