Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Publisher: Disney Hyperion Books on October 6, 2009
One day Han Alister catches three young wizards setting fire to the sacred mountain of Hanalea. Han takes an amulet away from Micah Bayar, son of the High Wizard, to ensure the boy won’t use it against him. The amulet once belonged to the Demon King, who nearly destroyed the world a millennium ago. With a magical piece so powerful at stake, Han knows that the Bayars will stop at nothing to get it back.
Meanwhile, Princess Raisa ana’Marianna has her own battle to fight. She’s just returned to court after three years of riding and hunting with her father’s family. Raisa aspires to be like Hanalea, the legendary warrior queen who killed the Demon King and saved the world. But it seems that her mother has other plans for her—plans that include a suitor who goes against everything the Queendom stands for.
The Seven Realms will tremble when the lives of Han and Raisa collide.
I’ve had a copy of Cinda Williams Chima’s The Demon King sitting on my shelves for over a year now, and after reading it I’m pretty mad at myself for waiting this long. Aggravating plot points and somewhat obtuse characters aside, this was the YA high fantasy that I’d been waiting for. Finally I can get excited about a series again!
Political unrest and discontent is brewing in the Queendom of the Fells. Tensions are mounting between the power hungry wizards and the Clanspeople, mountain dwelling traders, warriors, and artisans who abhor magic. The fact that the Queen openly favors the High Magician only makes matters worse. For Princess Raisa, heir to the throne, these tensions hit particularly close to home: her father belongs to Demonai Clan and her paternal grandmother is an important elder among them.
Raisa is clearly torn between her desire to be a good ruler and her desire to be free. Chima writes some very interesting commentary on the complex role of royals, suggesting that Raisa is by turns one of the most powerful people in the Queendom and the least free. That sentiment really struck me, and sophisticated observations like those helped elevate The Demon King from a good quality fantasy novel to a great one. Pressure and coercion crushes Raisa from all sides; ultimately she must decide what is best for the Queendom, regardless of other people’s wishes.
Han Allister is similarly torn between two worlds: former street lord and leader of the Raggers, Han is struggling with his decision to “go straight” and make an honest living to support his family. Han doesn’t receive much encouragement at home, as his mother is constantly calling him cursed and saying that he’ll come to no good. She even goes so far as to beat Han in front of his little sister. She is a terrible woman. We eventually learn the reason for her behavior but while it explained her actions it certainly didn’t justify them.
Maybe I disliked her so much because of how likeable Han was. Despite believing that he’s cursed with bad luck, Han manages to wriggle his way out of a few seemingly impossible situations. No doubt his charm has a lot to do with it. Everyone from his former gang members, to his priestly teacher, to the Princess Raisa herself falls under his spell. But is this because of his personality, or is it something…more? You’ll have to read it to find out.
Han feels happiest when he’s in the mountains among his Clan friends, Fire Dancer and Bird. He hunts, runs, and generally romps about the mountain range, free from the worry and guilt that he feels at home. Knowing that he’s the only thing keeping his sister from starvation is a lot for a kid to bear. Maybe that’s why he’s so tempted when he happens across a wizard’s amulet in the mountains. But what is a magical artifact doing on Clan lands, where magic is banned? And why are powerful people so desperate to reclaim it?
My only real problem with The Demon King is in relation to these kinds of questions. Raisa and Han are trying to puzzle out what’s going on around them but I’m telling you, it’s not that freaking difficult. They are just SO BLIND to what’s going on around them. Open your eyes, people! I called several so-called plot twists way before they were revealed and it honestly felt a little disingenuous that two people who are so smart about everything else couldn’t figure out what was going on around them. There was only one reveal that I was truly surprised about – the identity of a certain lady’s maid. That was pretty cool.
That quibble aside, I adored this first installment in Chima’s YA fantasy series. World building, magic, and the search for identity are at the fore of this wonderful story. We do see the beginnings of some romantic entanglements, but unlike many current offerings these ships don’t take over the story. In fact, I thought they added a lot to it, since class and racial prejudice profoundly impact both relationships. If your favourite YA fantasy series recently concluded and you’re looking for something to fill the gap, The Demon King is an obvious choice. It’s smart, detailed, and full of characters you can really get invested in; in short, it’s an almost-perfect series opener.