Hey, remember my review of the first book in this series? When I said it had some interesting worldbuilding, but was ultimately a pretty dull story with no compelling characters or stakes to carry it? Remember when I basically called it a boring read and wasn’t super thrilled about reading the rest of the series?
Well take all that nonsense and chuck it right out the nearest window! Because this series just shattered all my expectations. This time around, not only do we get the same fascinating and eerily beautiful setting from the first book, but we get everything else that I could have possibly asked for: interesting characters, real tension and stakes, and a kingdom on the very brink of destruction!
Eat it, sagging middle syndrome!
It hasn’t been long since Daleina became Queen of Aratay; not long since she emerged as the only survivor of the coronation massacre. But now she is hiding a terrible secret: she is dying. And if she dies without an heir to take her place the spirits will destroy everything and everyone she has vowed to protect. Ven, the Queen’s champion, believes he has found such an heir: Naelin, wife of a woodsman, devoted mother of two children, and a woman utterly terrified of her own tremendous power. She wants nothing to do with the spirits, or her ability to control them – her duty is first and foremost to her children. But as the spirits grow bold beneath Daleina’s crumbling power, Naelin may have no choice but risk everything to keep her son and daughter safe.
I’ll be totally honest: after reading The Queen of Blood, I wasn’t really looking forward to starting the sequel. You can check out that review before reading this one but in short, it wasn’t bad, but it managed to be kind of dull and flat – which isn’t something I should be saying about a story where the entire kingdom is on the brink of annihilation. So, when I finally sat down to read the sequel, I wasn’t expecting anything more than that: some cool worldbuilding, nice descriptive writing, and not much more.
I have never, ever, been so thrilled to be wrong.
I LOVED this book. I absolutely ate it up. I managed to spill hot soup all over myself because I was more focused on getting to the next chapter than not burning myself like an idiot. Worth it, though. And that should pretty much tell you everything you need to know right there.
Things are happening in this story in a way that’s completely different from The Queen of Blood. Events occurred and characters made decisions there, but none of it really felt like it mattered until maybe the last twenty pages. Here, everything is set out beautifully from the start. It almost feels like the first book was just the backstory we needed, and now the real story has a chance to shine. And wow does it shine!
“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 . . . And those spirits want to kill you. It’s the first lesson that every Renthian learns.”― Sarah Beth Durst, The Reluctant Queen
Those dull characters without personal stakes or desires of their own? They’re pretty much here in name only, replaced with people with clear, understandable, and interesting motivations behind their actions. No one is going through the motions here – there are goals, there are ambitions, there are stakes. Where in the previous book I was interested, now I was invested, and that makes a world of difference.
Characters whom I’d completely forgotten about by the end of the first book smashed their way back into the narrative and straight into my heart. Daleina in particular is nothing like she was in the last book. Gone is the girl who accepted her lot in life and never strived to accomplish anything more than mediocrity. Now she’s a tragedy-hardened queen, haunted by the events that led to her coronation, and willing to pay any price to fulfill her duty to her people. It’s such a massive step up for this character that I almost couldn’t believe she was the same person. And that’s not even mentioning the stunning debut of some truly fascinating new characters!
Which brings me to Naelin. Not only is she an adult with a husband and two young children, but at no point in this story did it feel like she was any less of a devoted parent with all the joys and responsibilities that come with it. The kids could have been fobbed off on someone else, never to be seen again, but instead Naelin is determined to do whatever it takes to keep her son and daughter safe and by her side. I haven’t seen a character like this very often, much less in a fantasy setting, and Naelin stands out simply for the fact that she’s not a plucky teenage orphan. Her devotion to her children is the heart and soul of this character and I absolutely adored her journey. The fact that she has enough power to level an entire kingdom with a passing thought is also pretty damn badass.
“I wanted to matter. For my life to matter. So many people die and no one knows they ever existed. They’re ripples in a stream, disappearing when the wind blows.”― Sarah Beth Durst, The Reluctant Queen
You know what else is badass? This book managed to take what I did enjoy about the last book, the magic system, and managed to improve it twice over. In the first book, we were told the spirits were a constant threat, but it never felt like they were the real danger – it was always a result of someone else pulling the strings. They were dangerous, but not terror inducing, and I got the impression that peace might eventually be possible between humans and spirits one day. But now, it’s easy to see those little sprites as the vicious monsters they were always meant to be.
The spirits feel like a legitimate danger now, not only in the way they lurk around our characters, absolutely gleeful at any opportunity to tear them to bloody shreds, but in the tone of the story itself. No longer just a nasty background element, the spirits of Aratay are a threat, ready to strike at the first sign that the balance has tipped in their favour, and the entire story is elevated as a result.
In conclusion: this book is awesome. I’m amazed that such an amazing story is a sequel to something I found so lackluster. The pacing is still a bit slow, and there is definitely more of an emphasis on talking over action, but if you’re looking for a great read, I’d still highly recommend The Reluctant Queen. The first book is worth taking a look at – even just as set up for the next installment – but, for once, this is one sequel that absolutely outshines the first in every possible way. I’ll be picking up the last book in the series very, VERY soon.
Final Thoughts: A slow burning story of wonder and terror in equal measures, I absolutely loved everything about this book, and my only real complaint was that it ended at all! Some readers might find it a bit slow in places, and you do need to get through the first book before you can enjoy this, but this is an incredible improvement and I had a ton of fun reading it. This is a definite favourite for me!
Thanks for reading everyone.