Publisher: Harper Voyager on September 20, 2016
An idealistic young student and a banished warrior become allies in a battle to save their realm in this first book of a mesmerizing epic fantasy series, filled with political intrigue, violent magic, malevolent spirits, and thrilling adventure.
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 . . .
But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still just human, and no matter how strong or good, the threat of danger always looms.
With the position so precarious, young women are chosen to train as heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, is under no illusions as to her claim to the throne, but simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Ven, a disgraced champion, has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. Joining forces, these daring partners embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will test their courage and trust, and force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land . . . before it’s bathed in blood.
At first glance, THE QUEEN OF BLOOD is a typical fantasy novel with some strong YA overtones; with its basic storyline of a young woman who must compete with other powerful youngsters to reign supreme, it feels quick cookie-cutter. But beneath this generic plot lies a fascinating world, complex moral questions, and an unusual heroine, all of which kept me reading late into the night.
THE QUEEN OF BLOOD introduces the world of Renthia, a wild land filled with verdant forests and lush landscapes. But the health of these lands is also that which poses the greatest risk: the nature spirits that renew the forests and maliciously hunt and kill all humans. Their foremost desires are to create and to kill, and for hundreds of years they have been kept at bay only by the power and the will of the Queen. Chosen not by lineage but by her affinity for spirit magic, the Queen protects the kingdom of Aratay by using her power to control the nature spirits and bending them to her will. This power is not infallible, however, and when nature spirits begin to ravage the outer villages of Aratay a new generation of potential candidates for the position must be trained at the academy. That’s right y’all, we’ve got ourselves a magic school story!
A girl from the outer forests, Daleina discovers her affinity for magic when her village is attacked and overrun by the creatures the Queen couldn’t control. She saves her family, but does not have the power to save the rest of her people…which means that she’ll never be powerful enough to be crowned Queen. Nevertheless, year after year she scrapes by with her training at the academy, using her intelligence and leadership skills to succeed where her magic cannot aid her. Daleina is an unusual heroine in that she’s not the strongest, or the most powerful, or even the smartest among her peers; she’s filled with self-doubt and plagued by survivor’s guilt, but her determination to protect Aratay and support her stronger classmates on their journey to the throne made me admire her greatly. Champion Ven, one of the realm’s guardians sworn to train potential Queens, also sees these qualities in Daleina and takes it upon himself to train her in the wilds of Aratay.
As much as it pains me to say it, but THE QUEEN OF BLOOD doesn’t hit its stride until Daleina leaves the academy to begin her field training with Champion Ven…which is about halfway through the story. Normally I love a good magic school setting but the academy let me down, not least because I was expecting at least one lady romance to blossom and it never did, much to my frustration. But I persisted with it, because the world building in the story is fascinating enough to make up for a slow first half. Aratay is a kingdom among the trees: homes and public buildings are located in the treetops, with people travelling between them via rope bridges, free climbing, and even wire zip lines in the very tops of the trees. The scenes where Daleina, Ven, and their companions zip through the trees on their way to confront spirits and protect villagers were some of my favourites, and Durst does a good job crafting the atmosphere of a world just this side of wildness.
The real struggles in THE QUEEN OF BLOOD are not those between human and spirit, but rather between those humans who wield their power for their own glory and those who do so in the service of Aratay. Daleina struggles to always do the right thing for the kingdom, even when it goes against what she personally desires. Some readers may find her too cold and remote to be relatable, but personally I felt her fire in the inner tumult caused by all the deception around her. Her slow realization that a system she thought beyond reproach is actually full of rot and corruption was compelling even when I saw the inevitable reveals coming from miles away. While the final outcome of the story was fairly predictable from the beginning, some of the events that occurred along the way were total “WHOA” moments. Despite some of my issues with this one, I look forward to the sequel, which will be set several decades in the future and will follow another round of candidates for Queen.
A slow-to-start but ultimately satisfying story, THE QUEEN OF BLOOD is a solid introduction to a promising new fantasy series. Recommended for fans of leisurely-paced storytelling and feminist twists on classic narratives, but those looking for a thrilling read may want to steer clear.