Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)
Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two
Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Following his epic 2020 debut, one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, Nick Martell, returns with the second entry in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series, The Two-Faced Queen.
Last year I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of Martell’s incredible first novel, The Kingdom of Liars. The Kingdom of Liars was a gripping and impressive fantasy read set in Hollow, a crumbling city surrounded by an army of rebels, which followed the misadventures of the infamous Michael Kingman. Michael is the scion of the legendary Kingman family, a noble clan of heroes and leaders who have guided Hollow for generations, serving as both supporters to the royal family and a check on their power. However, the legacy of the Kingman family has been severely tarnished in recent years as Michael’s father was executed for the murder of the heir to the throne. With their family disenfranchised, Michael grew up as an outcast in his own city, acting out against authority. This changed when a chance encounter allowed him to investigate who was responsible for his family’s downfall and the death of the prince of Hollow. While he was eventually able to discover the true murderer, his investigation also resulted in the King’s suicide, which subsequently saw him tried for regicide and sentenced to death. The end of the book saw him manage to escape his execution, while also setting up several of the storylines for future entries in the series. I deeply enjoyed the cool story of this first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, and The Kingdom of Liars ended up being one of my favourite novels, audiobooks and debuts of 2020. As a result, The Two-Faced Queen was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.
Michael Kingman is a dead man walking. Still accused of killing the King of Hollow, Michael is now under the protection of the Orbus mercenary company, serving as an apprentice under the mysterious mercenary Dark. However, even with Orbus’s protection, everyone in Hollow still wants to either kill him or use him for their own dark ends. The deadliest of these is the one person Michael is sworn to protect above all others, the heir to the throne, Princess Serena. After spending years away, a vengeful Serena has returned to claim her throne and end Michael’s life. Wielding great power, a lethal attitude and holding the keys to Michael’s heart, nothing will stand in the way of her wrath.
To restore his family’s position, save his home and convince Serena of his innocence, Michael needs to unravel the various conspiracies that have encircled Hollow and uncover the true motivations of the various power players in the city. However, to succeed, Michael is forced to go up against a magnitude of foes, from the Corrupt Prince, the unhinged Rebel Emperor besieging the city, enraged royal guards, conspiring nobles, a scheming immortal, an insane serial killer, dangerous assassins and his former foster father, the man responsible for all his family’s ills.
But the more Michael attempts to understand Hollow’s hidden past and the dangerous plots surrounding his city, the more it becomes apparent that his is a mere pawn in a very dangerous game. Immortals, monsters and mercenaries are all present in Hollow, and each of them has their own nefarious designs for Michael and his family. Can he save everyone he loves before it is too late or has the Kingman family finally breathed its last? Michael’s rise to become a Mercenary King continues, but who will truly wield power when the dust settles?
Now that was one hell of a sequel! Martell absolutely crushed this second entry in this outstanding and exceptional fantasy series, producing a five-star novel that is extremely compelling, intense and so damn exciting. I was absolutely enthralled with this book the moment I started listening to it and I loved every second. The Two-Faced Queen is easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 and I think that any other fantasy novel coming out this year is going to be extremely hard-pressed to outdo it.
Martell has come up with a pretty incredible and intense narrative for The Two-Faced Queen, one that proves to be extremely addictive and insanely good. Starting shortly after the events of The Kingdom of Liars, this novel starts fast and hard, with Michael following up on a number of storylines and revelations from the previous novel. There is already so much going on right from the start of the novel, as the protagonist finds himself surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, both old and new. While several secrets were revealed at the end of the first novel, there is still so much that Michael needs to understand. However, as he attempts to learn these additional secrets, he must also try to avoid the deadly attentions of his beloved princess, end the rebellion plaguing the city, restore his family, defy a dangerous immortal, and make up with his betrayed friends. While this is already a substantial amount of story, Martell keeps adding to it, as Michael also soon encounters a deadly assassin with a contract on him, and a deranged and unnatural serial killer.
While this may seem like too many story elements for one novel, it actually works extremely well, and the reader quickly becomes engrossed in Michael’s various adventures throughout the city. I loved the inclusion of the serial killer storyline, as not only does it add some fantastic mystery elements, but it also proves to be a gateway to some intriguing world building, revealing more of the dark, immortal forces manipulating events from the shadows. This storyline also results in several epic action scenes that place the protagonist and his friends in mortal danger from some unusual foes. I had an outstanding time getting through this complex and well-constructed narrative, especially as every single scene has an intriguing revelation, intense character development or subtle clue to the future of the series. Several key mysteries and secrets from the first novel are answered, partially or wholly, in this novel, although many more are introduced. This really helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on The Two-Faced Queen’s plot, and I am not exaggerating when I talk about how addictive the secret-ridden narrative proves to be. Readers are hammered with large amounts of lore and history in places, so I would recommend reading the first novel in the series, The Kingdom of Liars, before reading this book, although binge-reading this series is hardly a chore. Overall, The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative is epic story writing at its best, and readers will love this terrific tale.
I absolutely must highlight the awesome and well-developed characters featured within The Two-Faced Queen. The most prominent is series protagonist Michael Kingman. Michael is an intriguing and distinctive figure through whose eyes most of the plot unfolds. I have to admit that Michael was not my most favourite character in the first book, mostly because of his impetuous nature and selfish behaviour at times. However, it was revealed that the reason for some of his annoying behaviour was due to some magic affecting his memories and personality. As a result, Michael’s behaviour is substantially changed in The Two-Faced Queen and he comes across as a more considerate figure in this book. He still has quite a few flashes of recklessness and stubbornness, but many of the rougher edges from the first novel are worn away here. Still, a lot of people call Michael out for his crap in this book, including his friends and family, and it was great to see him finally heed their words. There was also some additional exploration of how Michael deals with the legacy of being a Kingman; he is forced to live up to some big expectations. There is a rather good scene where Michael is exploring the crypt of his ancestors with some of his friends, describing why some of them are famous and others are considered failures because they never achieved anything remarkable but just lived a normal life. Seeing this, Michael’s friends, both of whom have been some of his greatest critics, start to understand just how much pressure he is under. I really appreciated the way in which Martell continues to develop his protagonist, and it will be very fascinating to see how Michael’s story continues in the future novels.
Aside from Michael, there is an impressive collection of interesting supporting characters, each of whom have some fascinating storylines, as well as secrets or details from their past which helps to move the story along. They also have their own motivations and plans to shape Hollow and the rest of the world to their advantage, which results in additional plots and conspiracies that the protagonists have to overcome. The most prominent supporting character is probably Serena, the titular Two-Faced Queen. Serena is Michael’s childhood friend and the royal he was sworn to, meaning that he was always destined to be her protector, advisor, and conscience. However, after the death of her brother and Michael’s family were declared traitors, their relationship effectively ended. Now returned, Serena is determined to destroy Michael for the apparent murder of her father, even if it leads to her own ruin. The novel starts up with Michael visiting Serena only to find that she has hand-dug a grave for him, showing her resolve for killing him. This forces Michael to attempt to change her mind, which is no easy prospect, and results in great calamity. Naturally, these two characters share thorny romantic feelings for each other, which complicates Michael’s plans to stay alive, as Serena is a major blind spot in his defences. Their entire joint character arc in this novel is extremely good, and I really appreciated the author’s take on their complex relationship.
Another key character is Dark, Michael’s mercenary master, who, aside from having his own mysterious past and motivations, is the son of Michael’s nemesis, Angelo Shade. Due to Michael and Dark working together closely, the protagonist learns several of Dark’s secrets, especially those related to his troubled childhood and his encounters with the Heartbreaker serial killer. While you don’t learn everything about Dark’s past in this novel (Martell is the master of dolling out just enough character detail to keep you interested, while also keeping plenty back for future novels), you do find out quite a lot, and what is revealed is extremely memorable. Dark has a real dark side to him, no pun intended, and while Michael initially believes that Dark is his ally, he is soon faced with the possibility that he might have placed all his trust in a monster. This results in a very interesting mentor/student relationship between the two, filled with much conflict and mistrust. I really enjoyed learning more about Dark in The Two-Faced Queen, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of his story unfolds in the future.
Other intriguing characters in this novel include Michael’s best friend Trey, who is attempting to forge his own path and take down both the nobles and the rebels, even if this leads him into conflict with Michael. Trey has a fantastic arc as dangerous antihero in this book, taking control of the city’s criminal element in order to protect its citizens. While a lot of his hostility towards Michael has ended, Trey and the protagonist still have a strained relationship, although Trey does go out of his way to help his friend. Despite their friendship, it is clear that there is a major schism between the two planned in the future, which no doubt will result in all manner of pain and regret. The ruthless immortal Charles Domet is still a firm favourite of mine, and it was fun to see his attempts to manipulate Michael, especially as Michael is now well aware of his true nature. There are some interesting hints to Domet’s past in this novel, and he is clearly working up to something big. The ambitious social climber Naomi also returns, although now she is suffering from a bad drug addiction which makes her even more entertaining, especially as she decides to torment Michael through embarrassment. I also quite liked the expanded use of the chronicler, Symon. Symon, who is determined to record and analyse every secret of Michael and his family, has taken to stalking them by living at the Kingman family home, and it is always entertaining to see his take on the events occurring before him. He ends up actually narrating several interludes in The Two-Faced Queen, which are laid out as parts of his in-novel chronicles as part of a very clever and amusing supplement to the main story. Symon really endeared himself to me in this novel, especially after his insulting descriptions of Michael in his proposed history book, and I deeply appreciated his increased presence.
I honestly could go on and on about the various characters featured within this novel; indeed, I have only just scratched the surface of the support cast in the paragraphs above. However, it is more than clear that Martell does an excellent job in introducing and developing complex characters, and I loved the detailed and intriguing depictions of them throughout the novel. Nearly every character featured within The Two-Faced Queen gets at least one big moment, and there are plenty of revelations and compelling backstories that are really cool to uncover. I will say that you should probably not get too attached to the characters; however, I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to each of the survivors, especially as Martell has set up some deeply captivating and powerful character arcs around them.
In addition to the fantastic story and amazing character work, Martell has also invested a lot of time in expanding his enthralling fantasy world. The first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings did a great job setting up the key elements of Hollow, such as the noble families, the people of the city and the various problems they faced. This unique setting of a besieged city filled with scheming nobles and set on a world where pieces of a shattered moon fall to the ground was so cool, and The Two-Faced Queen continues to expand on these previous elements, while also adding to the history and geography of the city and its surrounding nations. Not only do you learn of several outside nations and locations but you also get to see how the key characters of this novel, or their ancestors, have impacted them, as well as the various dangers these realms represent. However, some of the most substantial world-building revolves around some of the unusual creatures residing in this world, including a range of dangerous and destructive immortal creatures. In the previous novel we only encountered one immortal (that we knew of), whose plots and schemes were a major part of the book’s plot. This second novel, in contrast, is loaded with many more immortals, each of whom has their own unique abilities and plans for the world. Martell introduces the lore around these immortals extremely well, and their various traits and schemes are worked into the plot extremely well. It sounds like we are going to encounter a whole raft of intriguing and monstrous immortals in the future of this series, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens there. The next book also looks like it will be set in a whole new location, and I will be extremely intrigued to see how that impacts the narrative.
One particular bit of world-building that I really enjoyed was the excellent expansions of Martell’s unique magical system. The main magic of Hollow is known as Fabrication, which allows its users certain control over certain elements or phenomena at the cost of their own memories. This is a really cool magical system, and Martell uses it to great effect throughout his novels, ensuring that there is all manner of destruction and manipulation throughout the narrative. The Two-Faced Queen features multiple new Fabrication types, as Martell introduces unique Fabrications throughout the story, including several that even the protagonists have never heard of. Examples include a particularly dangerous telekinetic Fabrication, which forces everyone to their knees (perfect for its user), while I was also very impressed with the disturbing blood Fabrication that one of the supporting characters pulled out. In addition, Martell also introduces some different forms of magic from some of the other countries in his fantasy world. While you only get to see one or two of these new magical abilities, they are still fun to see and they stand as an intriguing counterpoint to the already established magical abilities. It looks like Martell is setting up some sort of mystery around the origins of all these different powers and it should prove pretty interesting to see how that turns out.
Martell also does an incredible job fitting the downsides of this magical Fabrication into the plot, as several characters experience memory loss, which affects their plans, reactions and relationships. This is most obvious in Michael; as narrator, he loses several days of his life, resulting in him being unaware of plans he puts into motion or certain secrets that he learnt in these missing days. Because the reader does not see these missing pieces of time either, this adds an extra amount of mystery and uncertainty into the narrative, as you try to work out both what is being deliberately hidden from Michael and what he has simply forgotten. These bigger lapses in memory are a fantastic part of The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative, and it helps to make the flow of this book unique and compelling. However, you also have to appreciate some of the smaller examples of memory loss throughout the book, some of which are quite heartbreaking in nature as the characters forget elements of their friends and families without realising it. There is one extremely poignant scene in which Michael confesses to forgetting something very important to him, with the reader only then realises that a certain normal-sounding character description was evidence of memory loss all along. Some of these subtle details are really impressive, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the hurtful side effects of this magical system.
To enjoy this awesome book, I ended up grabbing its audiobook format, mainly because I had such a great time listening to the first novel. There were actually two audiobook versions of The Two-Faced Queen, and I ended up grabbing the Joe Jameson narrated version. Jameson is a fantastic audiobook narrator who has previously lent his voice to amazing fantasy novels like King of Assassins by RJ Barker. I loved his narration for The Kingdom of Liars last year and I was really keen to continue to listen to him in this sequel. Jameson has a great voice for this complex fantasy read, and you swiftly become enthralled by the way he narrates the events occurring, as well as the fantastic voices he comes up with for his characters. All the characters are given a unique voice in a variety of different accents, and each of them really helps to capture the character’s emotions and personality perfectly, whether it is the constant confusion and hurt in Michael, the raging anger of Serena, the cold menace of Dark or the calculating and manipulative voice of Charles Domet. All this voice work is perfect and spot on and I really appreciated the effort that Martell put into this book. Despite its runtime of 20 hours, I got through this audiobook in no time at all and I honestly wished it was a lot longer by the end. This was another outstanding audiobook, and this format comes highly recommended to anyone interested in this fantastic novel.
With this epic and captivating second novel, Nick Martell has cemented his position as one of the best new fantasy authors out there. The Two-Faced Queen was absolutely incredible, and I loved the complex and addictive story, set in a unique fantasy world. There are just so many cool elements to this awesome novel and it really does not take long for the reader to become hooked on every single mystery, secret and hidden past that Martell features within this great read. I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series, but it is already perfectly clear that The Legacy of the Mercenary King books are going to be one of the defining fantasy series of the next few years.