Review: The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

The Queen of Blood
Written by Sarah Beth Durst

Published: September 20, 2016

Publisher: Harper Voyager; a division of HarperCollins Publishers

Series: The Queens of Renthia Coming-of-age story | High fantasy | Fantasy Fiction | Adventure fiction

Set in the magical world of Renthia, The Queen of Blood is Sarah Beth Durst’s ambitious entry into adult epic fantasy.

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow…

But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still just human, and no matter how strong or good, the threat of danger always looms.

With the position so precarious, young women are chosen to train as heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, is under no illusions as to her claim to the throne, but simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Ven, a disgraced champion, has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. Joining forces, these daring partners embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will test their courage and trust, and force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land . . .  before it’s bathed in blood.

With comparisons to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (and I will be getting to those soon, don’t worry) there were definitely some high expectations for this book.

And the story manages to deliver… at least, sometimes.

Let’s start with the good.

The greatest strength of this story lies in its interesting magic system; one that I haven’t really seen done before. The basics of it focuses on elemental magic, which is nothing particularly new, but magic users in Renthia don’t command the elements themselves, they use their will to force the spirits of the elements to do their bidding. The result is an interesting dynamic: a constant fight for dominance between the spirits who command the elements, and the women who seek to command the spirits.

It is a constant battle of wills between magic and magician. The loss of control can mean danger or death to the caster, and to anyone near them. The safety of their citizens is dependant upon a Queen being strong enough to impose her will on the entire land, otherwise the spirits will kill indiscriminately, and often in incredibly creative ways.

This constant sense of danger is never completely absent from the story, particularly for our main protagonist Daleina, whose control over the spirits is barely above average. And that is another strong positive I really enjoyed. Daleina never becomes a super-fantastical-strong-beyond-her-years heroine, nor is her power or expertise ever considered to be anything more than basic.

There’s a lesson here about perseverance and hard work going beyond natural talent and ability that I found incredibly uplifting. Daleina isn’t the hero because she is extraordinary, but because she never lets the fact that she has limits stop her from achieving her goals: she wants to do what she can to make the world a better place.

It’s a great message that I would love to see more often: ordinary people are capable of incredible things.

I just wish the book had gone just a little bit farther with some of these great ideas.

While I like the message behind the character, I also never got the sense that Daleina was particularly driven to achieve her goals. She rather quickly accepts that she has weaker powers compared to the other girls and it never seems to bother her, or really even register beyond the initial sense of disappointment and that fades away within a few paragraphs.

We do have other characters point out her limitations, but nothing is ever really built from this point of conflict and it never causes tension for Daleina. And this lack of tension makes our hero feel a bit bland as a result. Yes, she is still striving to succeed, but it never feels like she has to actively work for it. As a result, the stakes don’t feel as intense or as real as they could be. If Daleina had fought with everything she had against anything and anyone that stood in her way, including her limitations, I would have nothing but great things to say about her and this book as a whole.

Similarly, Renthia as a setting doesn’t feel as though it was developed to the fullest extent possible. Outside of the magic system, the reader doesn’t get a real idea as to how this world works. For a country constantly on the verge of attack by spirits bent on their annihilation, the inhabitants seem strangely unconcerned with their situation.

I think this is the main issue I had with the story as a whole: there are lots of good ideas and a huge amount of potential, but it feels like we never get to explore any of it in a lot of great detail.

I like the idea of this world. I like the characters, the setting, the magic that actively fights against the user, and I even like Daleina, despite my criticisms. However, in my opinion, there was so much more than could have been explored in this story that simply wasn’t given time to shine.

Now this book is the first in a trilogy, so it’s possible that all of this could be developed within the next two issues. And I am still curious about what might happen next for Daleina. So I guess we’ll just have to see what happens next.

Definitely a decent read, but not something I’d go around recommending to everyone. But if you enjoy interesting magic systems this might just be the book for you!

Thanks so much for reading everyone!

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