Review by: Brent Lambert
Disclaimer: The reviewer is not East Asian and thus lacks the relevant knowledge and lived experience to critique certain parts of this work.
The blurb for this book will make you think you’re about to walk in to a bloody, royal warfare but it never quite unfolds. And ultimately, the story is mostly better for it. This novel is a true slow build of character, politics and intrigues. It unfolds like a chess game where every peace is thoughtfully moved and tactics painfully considered before the game actually begins.
The novel takes place in an Asia-inspired setting where one kingdom (Zhaon) feels like imperial China and another kingdom (Khir) feels like it’s modeled after the Mongols. How accurate those descriptions are aren’t for me to say. Other kingdoms are mentioned and seem to be at play, but the author wisely decides to leave those in the background for the most part. The true tensions are simmering here between the conquerors and the conquered. Zhaon is a kingdom on the rise and after victory over Khir, its only Princess is sent to the enemy as a war prize.
Zhaon though isn’t quite as stable as it seems. The Emperor has let his pride get the better of him in terms of his family size. He has two wives, two concubines, two daughters and six sons. What I liked about this dynamic was that this is the first time I can remember reading a fantasy novel that openly posits the position of too many sons as being a problem. Because let’s be real, we know what toxic masculinity looks like and that many sons with power at their fingertips are not going to get along. So this book delves into all the ways these men regard each other. There’s true love, jealousy, intense ego and resentment on top of resentment in the mix. No one in this royal family is truly happy because they’ve all been scarred by the other in some fashion.
And it’s this environment that our Princess and her most trusted companion walk into. The book does a great job giving Princess Mahara and Yala a believable bond. Their friendship never feels superficial and its dynamics never forced. I also enjoyed the fact that this camaraderie never really seemed to get tested. Sometimes it’s good to have characters that remain close and are friends without internal complication. Because for these two, there’s more than enough external drama to deal with.
My only true concern with this book is that I feel it takes too long to get to its larger points. It contemplates its chess moves to the point of boredom in places. There are too many times when something of consequence seems like it’s about to happen and then it just doesn’t. A reader can only handle that happening so many times before you start to lose faith in the trajectory of the story. The characters really keep the narrative going when it otherwise drags.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss my love/hate for one character in particular. First Queen Gamwone is Cersei with her petty turned up about twenty notches. This lady is a whole mess. I knew she was going to be amazing when she sent off a wedding gift of fabric dyed in urine. Yes, urine. She is so utterly full of hate for everyone around her that you know she’s not leaving this world without burning some shit down along with her. Gamwone is delectably horrifying and truly the star of this novel for me. I’d read a whole work from her perspective because she’s just so realized.
This book is basically one long family drama smashed into politics. It’s the story of what happens when a patriarch doesn’t really consider the women in his life and the meteors that brings down around him. All of this is wrapped up in a lush, East Asian inspired setting with wonderful characters. The pacing slogs down hard in the middle, but by that point you’ll likely have a favorite character that you want to see finish their journey.