Quick Review – Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep – Audiobook Review

Kill the Queen Cover.jpg

Publisher: HarperAudio (2 October 2018)

Series: A Crown of Shards series – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Kill the Queen is a fun young adult fantasy book that came out late last year. Written by veteran author Jennifer Estep, known for her work on fantasy books such as the Elemental Assassin and Mythos Academy series, Kill the Queen is the first book in her new Crown of Shards series. I listened to the audiobook version of it, narrated by Lauren Fortgang, earlier this year and I have been meaning to review it for some time. With the sequel, Protect the Prince, coming out in a couple of weeks, I figured that it was about time I finally wrote this one up.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

Initially I was not too sure about this book, especially as the opening scenes were a tad slow and less action-packed than I was expecting. However, since the blurb and several early parts of the book indicated that there was an upcoming massacre in the palace, I decided to stick around and keep listening to it. This proved to be quite a good decision; not only did the story quickly pick up pace but I ended up really liking this book.

The lead-up to the massacre at the start of the book was done exceedingly well, especially as the reader can see it coming and you find yourself becoming quite involved with the story at that point. The rest of the story is also fairly exciting. The massacre at the palace is surprisingly brutal for a young adult book, and I really enjoyed the next half of the story, which featured the character joining the gladiator troupe. This part of the book was a good combination of training montage, character development and romance, while also showing a small amount of the antagonist’s moves to solidify her hold on the country. The eventual assault on the palace by the protagonists and the final fight between Evie and Vasilia were good, although I was expecting something a tad more epic, such as a massive battle between all the gladiators and the guards. Still it sets up the future books in the series well, as there are still antagonists on the loose, secrets to be discovered and wars on the horizon.

While the story is very good, this it does feature a number of young adult and fantasy tropes that are a tad overused at this point. The ostracised girl finding her confidence is very familiar, as is Evie’s romance with Lucas, the bad boy she initially cannot stand. I was also a bit disappointed with the shared history with the antagonist that was hinted at throughout the book. It is made to sound like Vasilia did something horrible to Evie in the past, but the evil deed was revealed to be engineered social ostracism because Vasilia had no more use of Evie. This is just a tad disappointing, especially as Evie mentions several times how terrible the event was and several flashbacks are utilised to build up the reveal. Do not get me wrong, the social ostracism that Vasilia organises is cruel, but, honestly, it’s insignificant compared to some of the other traumatic events Evie experiences, and better suited to a high school drama than a fantasy book like this. In addition, I did find that Evie’s whole character arc was also a little bit predictable. It is clear very early on that Evie was going to a classic ‘chosen one’ character whose secret magical ability and mysterious status as Winter Queen will save the country in the future. While a tad predictable, it was still a very interesting story to listen to, and even led to the author including a fun, self-aware declaration from Evie about how she totally is not a chosen one. I hope that Estep cuts down on the young adult and fantasy tropes in the next book, but this was still an amazing piece of fiction that is well worth checking out.

Overall, I would give this book 3.75 out of 5 stars and would definitely recommend it to any reader who is looking for a good new young adult fantasy series. I had a great time listening to it and I managed to power through it in a short amount of time. The audiobook version of Kill the Queen is really well done, and Fortgang is an excellent narrator who contributes some superb voicework to this book. I am probably going to get the second book in the Crown of Shards series when it comes out and I am eager to see where the story goes, especially as the author did leave some interesting plot points open.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

Lady Smoke Cover.png

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.

Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Ash Princess Cover

Publisher: Pan

Publication Date – 24 April 2018

 

From an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy fiction comes a powerful tale of independence and freedom.

Ten years ago the Kalovaxians invaded the peaceful island nation of Astrea, killing its guardians and enslaving the entire populace to work in the island’s magical gem mines.

Theodosia was only six when Astrea was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. Since then she has lived in her former palace as a prisoner to the cruel and despotic Kaiser, who seeks to destroy all trace of the Astrea culture and language. Given a new title, the Ash Princess, and forced to endure constant humiliation and punishment for her people’s rebellion, Theodosia has become a subservient creature, trying to survive as she waits for any sort of rescue.

When the Kaiser forces her to perform a terrible act, Theodosia is no longer willing to stand back and watch her people suffer. With unexpected allies suddenly close at hand, Theodosia stops a plan for her escape and instead chooses to remain at court to obtain information for the rebellion.

However, the Kalovaxians are a cruel and merciless race of warriors who excel at raiding and destroying the lands they conquer. Theodosia soon realises that supplying information to her companions is not enough; she needs to find a way to strike at the heart of the Kalovaxians and disrupt their tight control of Astrea. When opportunity presents itself, she must risk everything to give her people a shot. It is time for the Ash Princess to rise.

Ash Princess is the debut novel from Laura Sebastian and the first book in a young adult trilogy with a lot of potential.

This story is told completely from the point of view of the main protagonist, Theodosia, with a large amount of the book dedicated to her growth as a leader. Theodosia starts the book as a completely broken person, having been oppressed and abused for years and kept as a symbol of humiliation. As the story continues, Theodosia detaches herself from the persona she created to survive and starts to finally oppose her captors. Watching her obtain the courage to fight back is an integral part of the book, and her attempts to become the ruler her people need are touching and emotive. There is also a riveting inner conflict within Theodosia as she debates whether to hurt people that she cares about, even if her actions could bring relief to her people. While Theodosia strongly wishes to save her people and defeat the invaders, there is also a great desire to not become like the enemies she hates. The character runs a fine line throughout the book as a result, and many readers will enjoy how Sebastian examines this inner conflict.

Sebastian has included an intricate background setting for her electrifying story. The nation of Astrea had been brutally subjugated 10 years before the start of the story and is currently ruled by the Kalovaxians. Because of how total this subjugation has been, with a large number of deaths and the rest of the populace forced to do heavy labour, very few characters originating from Astrea are featured within the story. This background of a near-obliterated country is dark and grim, but serves as the perfect setting for an inspiring story of freedom and rebellion. The antagonists of the story, the Kalovaxians, are also the perfect villains for such a story, as they are undeniably evil. All of the Kalovaxians–even the milder ones that consider themselves Theodosia’s friends–are power hungry, destructive and feel that they are superior to all other peoples. The use of the setting and the antagonists within Ash Princess adds significant impact to the main story and forces the reader to care about the fate of the main character.

Readers of Ash Princess will enjoy the covert activities that take place as part of the main story. In order to find a way to liberate her country, Theodosia needs to infiltrate and influence parts of the oppressive Kalovaxian society. The scenes were she attempts to seduce, manipulate and commits acts of sabotage are compelling and one of the more intriguing parts of the books. In addition to the protagonist’s actions, there are also the secret plans that the Kalovaxians are undertaking. These plans are rather dark and include magical experiments on Theodosia’s people. These Kalovaxian plans result in some interesting actions from Theodosia and play a significant part in the plot. The fascinating gem magic of the Astrea plays an interesting role in the clandestine actions of both the protagonist and antagonists, and fantasy-minded readers will enjoy the resultant exploration of this branch of magic.

Ash Princess is a poignant tale of hidden strength and the fight for freedom. This is a satisfying start to Sebastian’s first series which introduces a memorable main character and a powerful story that makes full use of its awesome background story elements. This is an ideal choice for readers looking for their new fix of young adult fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone Cover.png

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

Australian Publication Date – 13 March 2018

World Publication Date – 6 March 2018

 

A brand new magical world is born in Children of Blood and Bone, the enthralling first book from a talented new author.

In the nation of Orisha, magic was once controlled by the maji, powerful practitioners who were respected and feared throughout the land.  However, that all changed eleven years ago, when magic suddenly and mysteriously died, leaving the maji powerless and confused.  Taking advantage of this uncertainty, the magic-fearing King Saran struck out, arresting and killing all the former maji.  Now the people of Orisha consider magic evil and all links to the old order are shunned.  Those children who would have become maji, if not for the death of magic, are known as diviners.  Made distinctive by their white hair, they have become a second-class citizenry within Orisha and are routinely targeted by abusive guards and crippling taxes as King Saran seeks to slowly kill them all off.

Zelie Adebola is one of these diviners and remembers what it was like before magic died.  Haunted by the death of her maji mother and still defiant after years of oppression, Zelie is determined to survive.  However, when a chance run-in with an ancient scroll awakens her latent magical abilities, Zelie is given an unexpected chance to restore magic to the world.  With the help of her brother, Tzain, and the rogue princess, Amari, Zelie must reclaim three artefacts and travel across Orisha before the solstice.  If they fail, magic will be gone forever.

As the trio encounter the dangers that lurk throughout Orisha they must also contend with a dangerous force that is following them.  Amari’s brother, Prince Inan, has been tasked by the king to hunt the fugitives down and ensure that magic can never return.  However, Inan’s own latent magical powers have surfaced, and he is torn between the burning powers in his head and his father’s instilled hatred of all things magical.  Will his sudden infatuation with Zelie save him, or will it lead to his destruction?

The greatest threat to the quest may come from Zelie herself, whose powers over life and death may turn out to be too dangerous to control.

Children of Blood and Bones is the first book from Nigerian American author Tomi Adeyemi.  It is a bold fantasy adventure targeted towards the young adult demographic, and has already received significant hype from various sources, including discussion about a possible movie adaption.

One of the most obvious things that will appeal to potential readers is the considerable work and imagination that Adeyemi has put into her fantasy creation.  The central focus on a group of oppressed magic users who have lost their power and influence is particularly engrossing, as is the distinctive magical practice and lore that Adeyemi has used.  The detailed landscapes and cities of the nation of Orisha do a wonderful job of catching the imagination, especially as the characters traverse a number of different locations, each with their own unique environments and features.  There are also a number of intricate battle scenes that add significant excitement to the narrative, including a particularly memorable sequence where the main characters participate in a massive ship-to-ship gladiatorial battle in a flooded desert arena.

In addition to the above elements, readers will enjoy the use of multiple character perspectives throughout Children of Blood and Bone.  Three of the main characters, Zelie, Amari and Inan, each narrate their own chapters and provide a detailed overview of the story from their point of view.  There are many quick-fire perspective changes that serve to give multiple different viewpoints of the same event.  This is particularly useful as much of the book is dedicated to Zelie, Amari and Tzain being closely pursued by Inan.  Seeing how close Inan gets to the protagonists through these separate perspectives adds a lot of tension and suspense to the book.  It also works well in enhancing many of the larger battle scenes, especially the above mentioned gladiatorial naval battle.  The different viewpoints also allow the reader a clear picture of the ideological breakdown of Adeyemi’s world, as the readers are given insight from both the oppressed diviners and the paranoid King Saran

Adeyemi’s clever use of multiple narrators also allows for a clearer view of the personal and group development of the main characters, which can be seen not just through their own eyes but through the eyes of the other narrators.  Amari’s change from spoiled princess to hardened warrior is fun and heart-warming.  The changes to Zelie and Inan as a result of their dramatic internal conflicts are much more intriguing and draw the audience in emotionally.

While Adeyemi explores several themes throughout the book, the most intriguing is her examination of power and the responsibility to wield it.  Within Children of Blood and Bone, the maji have had their magical power taken away from them and are oppressed by the king as a result.  The subsequent quest to return magic to the world raises certain ethical questions, like whether an oppressed group should suddenly have destructive powers returned to them?  Within the book there a number of characters who have dissenting views on the subject, but only Zelie and Inan are in the unique position of seeing both parts of this debate.  Inan has always been taught to fear and hate magic, but his perception of magic changes when he gains his own powers, meets Zelie and experiences the oppression brought on by his father.  As a result, his opinion about the future of magic is changed multiple times throughout the book.  Zelie on the other hand, has experienced oppression all her life, and is at first determined to bring back magic.  However, when she uses her own destructive powers and sees the devastation caused by other magic users, she starts to question her previously held beliefs.  This fascinating internal debate is masterfully woven in the story through the books narrators, and it will be interesting to see how this debate continues in any future books.

Children of Blood and Bone is an intricate and ambitious young adult fantasy debut that includes a first-rate, emotionally charged story.  Set in an inventive new universe and featuring slick use of characters and multiple narrators, Children of Blood and Bones lives up to its significant hype.

My Rating:

Four stars