Official Summary: When assassins ambush her best friend, Rielle Dardenne risks everything to save him, exposing herself as one of a pair of prophesied queens: a queen of light, and a queen of blood. To prove she is the Sun Queen, Rielle must endure seven elemental magic trials. If she fails, she will be executed…unless the trials kill her first.
One thousand years later, the legend of Queen Rielle is a fairy tale to Eliana Ferracora. A bounty hunter for the Undying Empire, Eliana believes herself untouchable—until her mother vanishes. To find her, Eliana joins a rebel captain and discovers that the evil at the empire’s heart is more terrible than she ever imagined.
As Rielle and Eliana fight in a cosmic war that spans millennia, their stories intersect, and the shocking connections between them ultimately determine the fate of their world—and of each other.
My Thoughts: I’ll be frank— I was wary jumping back into YA fantasy. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just that I felt burned out by the genre. I knew all the tropes and no longer related to the characters. That love I once felt for these sorts of characters and their worlds was lost. Still, from the moment I first read the summary for this book, I knew I would have to read it. In fact, it was one of my most anticipated books of the year. And all of this is really just build-up to me saying I loved it.
This novel was exactly what I needed to be able to appreciate YA fantasy again. The plot is unique, the characters are interesting, and the world-building is immaculate. Though a few things were predictable and not all the characters were fleshed out, I still found this book to be incredible. I am so excited to see where Legrand takes this story next. What a fantastic beginning to a promising new series.
The plot (or I suppose I should say “plots”) is one of the most fun and action-packed I’ve read in a while. I’m a sucker for a magical competition, so following Rielle through her trials was a blast. Eliana’s story is interesting too, especially since hers is harder to anticipate. We know how Rielle’s story ends because of the prologue, but Eliana’s is a mystery. Additionally, Legrand thwarted my expectations at every turn. I especially love how intricately woven together these stories are. Sure, I guessed a couple major twists, but it was the ride to get to those reveals that I cared about. Legrand really asserts herself as one of the cleverest minds in fantasy (and not just YA!) right now with how deftly she maneuvered her plot.
No matter what the story, characters are the most important aspect to me. And this book is filled with great characters… for the most part. The two protagonists, Rielle and Eliana, are well-developed and fun to follow. Each girl has her own distinct motivations and attitudes, masks they must where in order to protect themselves. Rielle is the only magic user who is not only able to use every element, but can do it without a casting. Her birth marks the realization of the prophecy of the Sun Queen and the Blood Queen. Though at first she is frightened and meek, she grows to be ambitious and strong. Torn between her secret desires and her need to be loved, Rielle is a fascinating case study on a character descending into villainy.
In fact, I’d argue both girls are different takes on the morally gray character. They have opposing arcs. Where Rielle goes darker and darker, Eliana slowly creeps toward the light. Eliana begins the story as a bounty hunter for the Empire. And, knowing that any institution called “the Empire” is never good, you would be correct in assuming it’s a corrupt system. However, Eliana slowly has to learn how to let empathy back into her life when her mother is kidnapped. She must team up with one of the elite members of Red Crown, the scrappy rebellion. Watching these two young women hurtle towards their destinies is so fulfilling.
However, the side characters aren’t as well-developed. Eliana’s compatriots are fleshed out more than Rielle’s. Eliana is joined by her younger brother Remy, a storyteller and hero-in-the-making. Though he loves his sister, he is vehemently against her work and has stringent morals. The Wolf is one of the higher ups in Red Crown and serves as a mysterious partner/foe for Eliana to banter with. He’s shady, and yet he can’t hide that he will do anything to achieve his goals. Navi is a princess from the last free country in the world who has long been undercover as a consort in order to smuggle information back to her people. She is willing to reach across the aisle, even when she’s not a fan of the person on the other side. It’s a vibrant cast of characters that I can’t wait to follow in the sequel.
Rielle’s companions, however, are less fleshed out. Corien, a character we never actually even see, is given more development and motivations than any other side character. He’s manipulative, but he genuinely feels something for Rielle. What exactly that is remains to be seen (and I don’t want to get too into his character because of spoilers), but it’s still more defined than anyone else. Audric, the prince and Rielle’s love interest, is kind and scholarly, but I couldn’t tell you much else about him. However, that doesn’t mean their scenes weren’t swoon-worthy. They just could’ve been more palpable. Ludivine, a childhood friend of Rielle’s and Audric’s betrothed, seems somehow too good to be true the whole book. And I genuinely can’t tell you anything about her aside from her relationship to Rielle and Audric. The motivations of all the characters around Rielle are so murky, I never knew exactly whose side anyone was on. I hope this is rectified in the sequel, but for now it was an issue.
Whether in Celdaria before the fall of the Gate or in Orline a millennium later, the world-building was intricate and detailed. The magic system is easy to follow and I never got confused as to the rules of each era. Despite taking place in the same world, each era is distinct and well-explained. Not only that, but Rielle and Eliana each have their own unique voice. This made it remarkably easy to switch back and forth between the two. As for Big Bads™, I’m especially fond of the use of angels as evil entities. It’s such a unique world, taking all the familiar YA fantasy tropes and turning them on their head.
When it comes to representation, this book is fair. Black characters, such as Navi, are explicitly described as having dark or brown skin. Our protagonists, however, are a little vaguer. At best, they can be loosely described as “biracial,” but nothing more concrete than that. One thing I did appreciate is that being gay seems to be a non-issue in this world. In fact, there’s no suggestion of homophobia anywhere. A minor character introduces his husband and no one bats an eye. Being queer is considered normal in this world. Once again, however, we fall into a gray area with one of our protagonists. Rielle is noted as having “spent her childhood cautiously flirting with Tal, with Ludivine, even daring to with Audric from time to time.” This suggests that Rielle is bisexual or pansexual, but it’s also just vague enough that it could be interpreted as childlike experimentation. That’s not to say I don’t lowkey support an OT3 between Rielle, Audric, and Ludivine, because I absolutely do. It’s just that Rielle’s possible interest in women isn’t explored further than that.
Eliana’s queerness is a little more concrete than that. When discussing her ex, she describes him as her only lover before correcting herself with “Except for this woman Alys… God, she made me black out a few times.” She also focuses a lot on details relating to Navi that are usually coded as signifying a love interest. For example, Navi opens her arms and “Eliana moved into her embrace without thinking. She burrowed into Navi’s front and closed her eyes, listened to the steady beat of Navi’s heart and the in and out of Navi’s lungs.” Later, Eliana “lay[s] in the soft tangle of Navi’s sleepy limbs with a feeling of rare and utter contentment.” Now, neither of these instances inherently mean the two will fall in love. It’s just that these are details that are usually reserved for love interests. And I thought that was worth noting.
There is also a loose thread in Rielle’s story of a foreign princess’ mysterious murder. It’s brought up occasionally, but nothing ever comes of it. Perhaps it’ll be more significant in the sequel, but it felt like its importance was being elevated for no real reason. There is also random girl hate between Eliana and Navi, but this is soon rectified so it’s not a major issue. I wouldn’t have even brought it up, except it’s so starkly different from how Eliana treats other strangers. Still, these were small issues, both of which were overshadowed by the overall great quality of the book as a whole.
I can’t necessarily say that this is a new favorite book, but it’s easily one of the best YA books I’ve read in a while. Despite its flaws, it was a great read. The plot keeps you on the edge of your seat, the characters are fascinating, and the world-building is fantastic. I really appreciate the small ways it tries to rectify sexist or homophobic tendencies in a lot of YA high fantasy. This novel will surely be one of the best YA books of the year— mark my words. Whether you’re more of a Sun Queen or a Blood Queen, this book has something for everyone. I can’t wait to see where real-life prophet Claire Legrand takes the story next.
My Rating: 4/5