August 03, 2017
(+++) REGAL ACTS
The Queens of Renthia, Book One: The Queen of Blood. By Sarah Beth Durst. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
The Queens of Renthia, Book Two: The Reluctant Queen. By Sarah Beth Durst. Harper Voyager. $19.99.
Wonderful worldbuilding whose effectiveness is diminished by mostly uninteresting characters and a too-straightforward use of many of the tropes of magical fantasy characterizes Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queens of Renthia series. The basic concept of the world of Renthia and the land of Aratay within it is outstanding: here there are spirits associated with natural processes akin to the old notion of “the four elements” on Earth, but in addition to earth, air, fire and water, there are spirits of wood and ice. And all six types of spirits are viciously, violently and quite terrifyingly inimical to human beings: they see people as invaders of the spirit domains and seek nothing less than to exterminate the human race. Humans cannot seek the spirits’ destruction in return, because without the spirits there would be no natural world within which humans could live – no rain, no fire, nothing living at all. So humans must hold the spirits at bay, and they do this by the rather improbable device of having a queen who is capable of sensing the spirits and holding them somewhat in check – sufficiently to allow a very uneasy coexistence.
So far, so good – indeed, very good. These are fascinating premises and no more far-fetched than many other assumptions underlying worlds of magic and wonder. But series such as The Queens of Renthia rise or fall with their handling of the characters who live within the fantasy worlds. In the first book here, The Queen of Blood – originally published last year and now available in paperback – the central character is Daleina, who discovers her abilities to hold off the spirits when there is an attack on her village that claims many lives. Soon the book shifts into standard young-protagonist-discovering-her-true-abilities mode, complete with the umpteenth iteration of a “school of magic” to which Daleina and other potential queens are sent to explore and hone their powers. Happily, Durst rings some changes on this particular fantasy formula. Daleina turns out to have weaker powers than many of the other students, and she is accepting of this reality and relies instead on her drive, intelligence and determination to carry her forward through her studies. The question Durst poses is whether this will be enough. To find out, Durst has Daleina come to the attention of one of those traditional Obi Wan Kenobi types, a disgraced Champion named Ven who is also the former lover of the current queen, Fara. It is Ven who helps Daleina develop her true potential – and, along the way, learns a terrible secret (yes, one of those) about Queen Fara that helps explain why spirit attacks on outlying villages are becoming increasingly common and deadly. Despite the formulaic elements throughout the story, Durst keeps things interesting with some unexpected material, such as the character of Merecot. She is an arrogant overachiever at the magical academy and will quite clearly be expected (by readers familiar with this genre) to become Daleina’s arch-enemy. Instead, though, Merecot and Daleina become fast friends, or at least seem to, and this takes the story in more-interesting directions than it would have gone in if Durst offered yet another Harry Potter vs. Draco Malfoy scenario. The second half of The Queen of Blood is better than the first, because Durst has largely completed her setup and what characterization she offers, and the story moves into high gear with a very considerable amount of danger and drama. The books builds to an ending that is intense, violent and quite bloody, following naturally from all that has come before while producing a climax so strong that it is hard to see where the story can go from that point – and how Aratay can survive further onslaughts of the spirits.
All this means that readers are far better off if they know The Queen of Blood before they start The Reluctant Queen, even though it is theoretically possible, if just barely, to read the second book without having gone through the first. Durst provides enough background for the second volume to make sense on its own, but in the absence of the extreme intensity and unremitting viciousness experienced by Daleina and the other characters in the first book, The Reluctant Queen comes across, on a standalone basis, as rather pale. As a sequel, though, it works reasonably well. The title gives away the trope here: there will be an ordinary woman who, however much she wants to remain ordinary, will find that she has no choice – for the sake of her family and her entire land – but to assume a mantle that she dislikes and disdains. Just like the first book’s message, which is basically that the intelligent application of limited power is more effective than the less-intelligently deployed use of much greater strength, the second book’s core is a well-worn one: we must use what powers we have for the greater good in order to do the best we can not only for society at large but also for ourselves and our loved ones. The person who must learn this lesson, Naelin, is a woodswoman and mother of two who has great control of spirits but no desire whatsoever to become queen. Because of what happens at the end of the first book, there simply aren’t any other viable candidates, and the potential queens who do go into training generally do not survive, much less make it through with the level of power they need. Finding a successor for Daleina is an urgent matter, because it turns out in this second book that she has a fatal illness – which not even her former lover, a healer named Hamon, can cure or slow down, despite the help of his mother, a brilliant herbalist. To complicate matters further (albeit formulaically), Aratay is under external threat from nearby Semo, whose ambitious queen is none other than Merecot – who, readers of the first book will recall, wields considerably more raw power than does Daleina. The personalities of Daleina and Naelin are far better developed than those of the other characters, who exist mainly to fill specified roles within the heroic-fantasy mold. But as in the first book, the worldbuilding and descriptive passages make The Reluctant Queen a fascinating read. There is a foundational contrast drawn in book books between the political machinations of the people and the unceasing brutality of the spirits, on the one hand, and the essentially idyllic nature of the setting in which the manipulations and often-horrifying events take place, on the other. The contrast is similarly drawn in both books, and the progress of the central characters follows largely expected lines both times as well. As a result, The Queens of Renthia never quite overcomes its foundationally genre-typical approach – despite touches here and there that set this series above many other otherwise similar sequences. Fans of heroic fantasy will find The Queens of Renthia more than ordinarily appealing, but readers not already drawn to books of this type will find little here to pull them in.