Description from Goodreads: King Sultes Fahrenne finally has a son but the day is a wretched one. His queen will not wake and the child is marked for death. Sultes will find he must choose to stand by his child or satisfy the traditions of his subjects. But is there another way?
The description gave me very little to indicate what this novel was about, but I had an opening in my book review schedule, so I took a chance on it and accepted the author’s offer to read it. And I don’t regret it. It’s a short, unique little story with strong characters and a very different fantasy system. Here’s a closer look at the Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, World Building, and my Overall Response.
Narration: 3 out of 5. I felt like the narration suffered from spending too much time with the king and his self-absorbed point-of-view. You can write a story that features a unlikeable character as the main POV and make it work, but it’s a tricky thing to master, and because the cast was so few and the narration never gave us the proper understanding of what was going on–who these people were and what they faced as threats, besides the death of the prince and assassinations–it was hard to become absorbed in the story.
I think the story would’ve been enriched by spending more time, earlier on, with the shaman, the tutor, and the queen. Maybe even having an average person of the townspeople to give an outside-the-castle perspective–anything to help us understand whether the king should care so intensely or not, because without a balancing perspective of some kind, we don’t know whether the king is being reasonable or completely erroneous in his assessment of the situation.
Content: 3 out of 5. There wasn’t a whole lot to the content–a few deaths, some flashbacks, and a great deal of thinking and puzzling, amidst assassination plots and attempts to overthrow the tradition of the land. My biggest challenge was understanding what was going on and why we should care about these people. I felt like we didn’t get enough information about the world of the story and what would happen if the traditions were altered to be invested. Everything happened so fast. The prince was born, but he was a shorthand…lacking any human appearance. Then the shaman said there might be a way to change things. Then they find out how much it’ll cost to the citizens of the kingdom and the morality of the king. Then…the plot just kept going, without explaining why it’d be so bad to be a shorthand. Why the king couldn’t just defy tradition and keep his son alive without making him the heir.
Characters: 4 out of 5. The characters themselves felt like real people, which perhaps added to the frustration of trying to understand who they were and what they were up against. I liked Gils, the tutor, and I was intrigued by the queen and her magic. I felt for the shorthands and the shaman, and wanted to know more about the old general, the missionary at the shorthand sanctuary…everyone but the king.
Artwork: Subjective. The cover was appropriately murky, which matched my feelings on what was going on in the story, but I really think it would’ve been helped by more details and information. An image of the three cards, perhaps? The prince himself? The town? The red cloud looked a bit like fire, and while I liked the dual nature, part dark and part light, I didn’t feel like it had anything to do with the story.
World-Building: 2 out of 5. This is perhaps the area that caused the greatest trouble, as lack of details on how the world worked filtered into other areas, making them that much weaker. Without understanding how the cards worked and what the religion of the cards was based on–the economic and socioreligious situation that this shorthand prince was born into–the whole story lacked meaning, and it wasn’t until the ending that I was able to partially get my bearings, as I was introduced to the common people, seeing things at last from the POV of the tutor.
But the fantasy concepts themselves seemed original and well-thought out, when I finally came to understand them. The idea that each person had three cards and was an incarnation of previous people, yet with a private soul and an animal characteristic, was very different from most fantasy stories…and yet it seemed underdeveloped. If the prince was a reincarnation, what difference would it make if he were killed and returned to the pool of people to come again, reshuffling him into the deck, as it were? He had no soul, and the animal didn’t matter all that much (or didn’t seem to), so it seemed like a perfect option, given the traditions of the culture, which was why we really needed more context to understand what was going on.
Overall Response: 12 out of 20, or an average of 3. The book showed promise, and if you like political intrigue and machinations with a fantasy twist, the series might be one worth trying. According to the author, the details of the cards is elaborated over the next book, which might fix many of the challenges the first novel had, and the characters themselves were strong enough to move the series forward. If anything, you might try reading the second book and skipping the challenges of the first book entirely (though I don’t know if that would be even more confusing).
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Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo used by permission of the author