A queen. A princess. Pirates. Castles. Magic. All the classic fantasy ingredients are present in Blood of the Four, the new book from Christopher Golden (Snowblind) and Tim Lebbon (Relics), but they’re brought together in new ways both entertaining and thoughtful. It’s the story of a kingdom at war with itself, and conceals some big ideas behind a veil of action and intrigue.
The book takes place in Quandis, a kingdom that’s been at peace for ages under a ruling dynasty currently represented by the popular Queen Lysandra. Her second child, daughter Phela, has spent her young life searching the secret spaces and forgotten tunnels running in and around the capital’s most important buildings—and made herself a one-woman spy network in the process. She realizes long before anyone else that her mother’s increased reliance on a common drug is driving an ill-considered grab for power among the kingdom’s priest class. Given that we’re in a fantasy novel, that power isn’t merely political: the priests of the Four guard actual magic—raw, primordial power that’s never been tamed.
A drug-fueled admission to her lover, the head of a prominent family, leads the queen to order his execution in order to keep things quiet. She also sells his family into slavery. Princess Phela watches as the priests and wealthy families respond with a combination of fear and rage, and coldly concludes that her mother is no longer fit to rule. Nor is her older brother, well-meaning but largely vacant. Phela makes plans to move both of them aside, and to neutralize her younger sister, Myrinne, whose fiancée was one of the enslaved nobles. Meanwhile, on the edge of the empire, the royal navy led is by Admiral Daria Hallarte, an admired swashbuckler with a secret past that complicates her loyalties. All these various factions form alliances and position themselves to benefit from the chaos, or to just survive. Morally, Phela isn’t necessarily better than her mother, but she’s smarter and subtler. Though she’s seen how magic destroyed her mother’s sanity, she has no intention of leaving such power to a bunch of milquetoast priests.
A brilliant and fully realized cast of characters gets caught up in all of this scheming and skullduggery, juicy enough to please any Game of Thrones fan. but Golden and Lebbon are interested in something more. The most important characters, good and not-so-good, are almost all women. More than that, the politics of Quandis are fascinatingly meaty. Though the kingdom had been at peace for some time, it was a peace that benefitted particular classes far more than others. “Heretics” of a particular monotheistic religion have been spurned, and members of the Banjuman underclass are treated as nonentities at best, and slaves at worst. It’s not even entirely clear what makes them so despised, and really, that’s the point. They’re a convenient scapegoat. Golden and Lebbon are less interested in the effects a budding civil war has on queens, princesses, and nobles, than it does on the underclasses who’ve never had the chance to reevaluate their status.
The rapidly changing circumstances in the kingdom offer the wealthy and powerful the same opportunity—when the princess’ consort finds himself cleaning out chimneys and subject to frequent beatings. Daria Hallarte, the heroic admiral who has spent most of her adult life passing, is called to decide what she’s willing to sacrifice to in order to be true to herself and her people. Eschewing the moral nihilism of some modern fantasy, Golden and Lebbon’s world does admit heroes, or at least characters who try to do what’s right, even if they don’t guarantee that everything will work out for them in the end.
The clash of powerful personalities is brilliantly realized, but the real drama is found in the storm that builds and breaks when an oppressed underclass has finally had enough. A storm that, in this case, only exists because two generations of rulers decided that ultimate wealth and power weren’t quite enough. None of that’s to suggest this is a frothing political treatise; Blood of the Four is also full of sword fights, sea battles, and magical duels. Thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining.