Series: The Queens of Renthia #1
Published by Harper Voyager on September 20th 2016
Format: Finished hardcover
Color me pleasantly surprised – a book that ostensibly bore many hallmarks of your average possibly-YA-but-maybe-not fantasy novel in fact turned out to be a very refreshing and unique read. I honestly didn’t expect to like this book so much, especially since my feelings for the story fluctuated so wildly for most of the first half. However, all traces of uncertainty were washed away by the time the plot ramped up to its brutal climax and staggering conclusion.
The Queen of Blood introduces us to the world of Aratay, a place where humans and nature spirits coexist in a state of precarious equilibrium. Spirits see humans as invaders in their domain, and given the opportunity they would gladly see us all dead. But while the spirits are destructive forces, they are also one with the natural world, and without them there would be no rain, no fire, no life.
So humans have learned to adapt. In Aratay, a Queen holds control over all the spirits in the area and protects her people from harm. To choose a Queen, girls with an affinity to sense and manipulate the spirits are identified and invited to an academy to learn how to use their powers. The most promising students are chosen by champions to be further trained to become potential heirs, so that in the event that the Queen dies there will always be a successor to take her place and keep the spirits in line.
Sometimes though, there are accidents. The book begins with a spirit attack on a village, which leaves many dead. Our protagonist, a young girl named Daleina, was only able to save herself and her family when her powers manifested during the massacre, and since that day has vowed to do all she can to prevent something like this from ever happening again. That determination ultimately leads her to the academy, where unfortunately, she discovers that her abilities are actually very weak compared to the many more talented girls in her class. But as more and more villages fall prey to spirits each year, it is becoming clear that the current Queen is starting to lose control—or worse, perhaps these attacks like the one on Daleina’s village were not in fact accidents at all. Something very bad is coming to Aratay, but will Daleina and her fellow aspirants be powerful or prepared enough to confront it?
As I said before, my feelings were all over the place for the first half of this novel. When I first started, my attention was immediately captured by the different feel the gorgeously detailed setting and atmosphere. The people and cultures of Aratay are closely tied to the land, with towns and even whole cities literally built into the canopies of the trees. I also liked the ideas and lore surrounding the large variety of spirits. To be clear, these aren’t your typical chaotic neutral entities that just want to live wild and free to do what nature spirits are wont to do. Instead, they are malevolent and destructive to their core. There’s a song that every child knows growing up:
Don’t trust the fire, for it will burn you.
Don’t trust the ice, for it will freeze you.
Don’t trust the water, for it will drown you.
Don’t trust the air, for it will choke you.
Don’t trust the earth, for it will bury you.
Don’t trust the trees, for they will rip you,
rend you, tear you, kill you dead.
It’s a silly little ditty, but it does serve to illustrate a very important point: that nature in this world isn’t something vast and beautiful and unfathomable to be respected or held in awe. No, the spirits are downright terrible—not merely cold and heartless but actually vicious and bloodthirsty. They are to be feared, and rightly so.
Things were building up to be very interesting—that is, until my enthusiasm was slightly dampened by the sudden arrival of the magic school trope. Don’t get me wrong though, for I enjoy the magic school trope and everything that comes along with it very much, but this book had the potential to step off such well-trodden paths. What follows is the usual pattern of watching a young protagonist develop her personality as she gradually comes of age, making friends and learning new skills along the way. To be fair, the author did manage to surprise me with some unconventional twists, such as Daleina’s unexpected friendship with Merecot (the arrogant, overachieving “queen bee” who in almost any other YA-type story would have been immediately typecasted as the main character’s bitchy rival) or the fact that Daleina really isn’t all that talented—and she knows it but also accepts it. Our heroine is a genuinely good person who isn’t there for her own glory, having a clear understanding the true meaning of service and self-sacrifice for the greater good. She has gotten as far as she has not because she is exceptional, but simply because she works her butt off. You gotta admire that kind of dedication and work ethic.
The really amazing parts though, were all in the second half of this book. That’s when I saw a good story make the shift to being a great one. I don’t want to give too much more away, but suffice to say the plot escalated into a high-stake crisis and very dangerous, dramatic circumstances. I really liked how everything came together, and the ending was simply stunning—in a “I can’t believe all that really just happened” kind of way.
All in all, things tie up quite nicely but there are also plenty of seeds planted here that will no doubt be explored in the sequel. I for one cannot wait to see what else Sarah Beth Durst has in store for us. For an introduction to a series, The Queen of Blood amazes me with its potential, and I look forward to the next book with great enthusiasm.