October 11, 2018
Crown of Shards #1: Kill the Queen. By Jennifer Estep. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Enter here, for the umpteenth time, into a world of sword and sorcery, a faux medieval world where royal courts hold forth in splendor even as the courtiers and the royals they serve plot the demise of those holding the power they crave – and sometimes bring that demise about. Enter a world where it is impossible to know whom to trust, where potential benefactors have their own motives for helping or appearing to help, a world where one’s worth is based on something that one cannot control – until a brave protagonist shows that one can follow and even create one’s own destiny through determination, grit, force of will, and a little help from a playground prophecy.
Ah yes, you have been here before. Many, many times. Jennifer Estep has one new angle for the more-than-thrice-told tale that opens the Crown of Shards sequence, and it is actually a rather good one – and about the only element that raises this genre potboiler very slightly above others (but only very slightly). What Estep does is to people the book almost entirely with women, allowing the flourishing of female friendship and guidance to drive the martial plot and the at-court machinations as well. Casting women in roles more often filled by men in fantasies like this would be a more-effective concept if the women’s personalities and their attitudes toward power differed substantially from those of men in other series, resulting in a world with materially changed motivations from those that are typical in books of this type. However, the reason the casting of women throughout makes only a slight difference in the interest level of Kill the Queen is that the women Estep creates are just as venal, self-centered, manipulative, power-hungry, skilled in fighting and attracted to it, as are men in other, very similar books. Cardboard characters are cardboard, whatever their gender.
The most-cardboardy of all, really paper-thin, is Vasilia, heir to the throne of the kingdom of Bellona. She is the chief villain of Kill the Queen, and about as villainous as a villainess can be. Her slaughter not only of her mother, Queen Cordelia, but also of the entire royal court, which sets the story in motion, is every bit as blood-soaked as epic-fantasy readers will want; maybe even a touch more so. Of course, in a plot like this, one member of the royal family must survive through a combination of pluck and sheer inconspicuousness, and thus the 17th person in line for the throne, Lady Everleigh Violet Winter Blair, not only escapes the massacre (killing four trained guards in the process) but also does so while carrying proof of Vasilia’s evil deeds and general evil (although who exactly will care about that in an absolute monarchy is a bit uncertain).
Everleigh is a lowly member of the royal family because rank in Bellona depends on magical ability, and Everleigh has none – well, a heightened sense of smell, but that is not much (which of course means it will become important as the book progresses). At court, before the massacre, Everleigh was assigned minor, inconsequential tasks, such as baking desserts and learning formal dances (and – surprise! – those abilities will also prove crucial to her eventual success). After her narrow escape from Vasilia’s depredations, which are so over-the-top that readers will practically hear the evil usurper cackle with glee amid the bloodshed, Everleigh manages – within 24 hours – to locate and find shelter with the most prestigious gladiator group in Bellona, where she assumes the name of Evie and immediately begins learning to fight (although she has been shown to be pretty good at that already) while concealing her identity from anyone who might be able to help her (logical motivation is not Evie’s strong point, or Estep’s).
Eventually, after plenty of mostly predictable twists and turns, Evie’s true identity is revealed, just in time for her to save many lives – not through her newly honed fighting abilities but through her court-polished ability to dance. Umm, yes. It also turns out that Evie is not so much unmagical as she is resistant to magic, and that in itself is a potent ability that, of course, is overlooked until it becomes crucially important. And so, after the saving-through-dance scene, the strong-willed, paranoid and immensely evil Vasilia allows the well-armed gladiators into her presence so Evie can gain the birthright that was foretold by a playground rhyme about “frosted crowns made of icy shards.” The plot is so strained and malformed that even fans of this sort of fantasy may find themselves groaning at times as Estep forces it into shape with heavy-handed authorial authority. But the mostly female cast is a plus, the fight scenes are well-paced and suitably exciting, and there is even a hint of romance that may become more germane in the next book of the series. Kill the Queen is almost wholly unoriginal, but readers who enjoy its genre will be pleased to find the novel so firmly rooted in typicality.