“It’s like Hogwarts, but with trees! And the trees want to kill you!”
Or so goes my elevator pitch for Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, the exciting first entry in the Queen of Renthia series. The cold open introduces what seems to be a familiar medieval fantasy setting, a small village (albeit one perched high in the trees) concerned with keeping its citizens safe and fed, among them a 10-year-old girl named Daleina. But suddenly, Dalenia’s village is destroyed by wood spirits, elemental creatures that haunt this world alongside similar spirits of fire, air, earth, ice, and water, and she and her family are the only survivors.
The elementals haunt every corner of the world, slipping in through cracks left by the unwary and leaving terror in their wake (though they also have the power to create, the general populace understandably focuses more on their more destructive habits). Their power is ostensibly kept in check by Renthia’s queen, a figurehead chosen by the spirits themselves (or so the citizens believe), because even the spirits realize that, left unchecked, they would soon devour the whole world, along with their ability to create anew, dooming themselves along with humanity.
Champions seek out women with affinities to be trained as potential queens, ready to step into the role at any time, should the current monarch meet an untimely end. The queen’s power keeps her subjects safe from harm. Such it is, such it has always been, and such, they had better hope, it will always be—so why are villages suddenly being destroyed?
It is here that Daleina’s quest begins. Her family survived only because she was unknowingly one of the rare souls able to control the spirits, an ability that makes her a viable candidate to be queen. And so off she goes to the capital, to be trained at the the Northeast Academy, the Renthian version of Hogwarts, in the hopes of preventing such calamity in the future. Soon, however, she, a band of fellow students, and a disgraced Champion named Ven discover Dalenia’s village was not the only one destroyed, powerful women are being murdered across the land, and the root of the evil goes far deeper than anyone imagined
Durst has crafted a gorgeous, cinematic setting for her series launch. Renthian society lives entwined with vast forests of magical trees—a society of curling, rising, entwined treehouses, entire villages stacked atop one another, lanterns dangling from branches and bridges swinging from house to house, the vast swathes of forests and mountains in-between traversed by ziplines that allow travelers to fly through the forest canopy. In her magical training, Dalenia encounters ingenious mazes, fiendish tests, and strange monsters,all rendered in vivid and engaging prose. (Do the words “wood kraken” catch your interest a much as mine?))
There’s a lot to draw in older fans of young adult chosen one/magic school quest narraties, but with enough invention that it feels fresh and new. A large portion of the credit goes to the heroine: Daleina feels like a direct response to literature than leans hard on the trope of the uniquely gifted teenager taking on an evil overlord. Daleina is the Jane Eyre of teen chosen ones: she is not inherently fascinating, vivacious, charismatic, or beautiful. She cannot perform feats of amazing, or even respectable, magic (that’s left to her friend Merecot, who is decidedly not the hero of this novel). No one marvels at her talent. Again and again, she is told to quit her training and go home, and Durst is brave enough to almost let us agree with her critics. This is a girl who only becomes a hero the hard way, through the exhausting grind of the underdog who often finishes last, but never gives up. She’s not the chosen one for her innate abilities, but because she really is doing it for the right reasons, making her a lot more relatable, and a lot more believable, than your average princess with a once-in-a-lifetime talents.
Daleina must face realistic questions about her chosen path, questions that will sting even those of us not occupying a fantasy realm: should I keep trying even though I keep failing? Am I only doing this because I don’t know what else to do? This is my dream, but is it the best thing I could be doing with my talents? It’s wonderfully complicated stuff that we rarely see young heroes and heroines grappling with, and I admire Durst for resisting the impulse to give her characters an easy out. Far from a foregone conclusion, Daleina’s accomplishments feel earned many times over, and her strongest quality—her unfailing determination to improve and protect the lives of others—stand out as the superpower it truly is.
Alongside Daleina, Durst weaves a tangled web of subplots—disgraced champions, unstable magicians, world-weary teachers, an enigmatic queen—planting seeds that will grow into most welcome sequels. The Queen of Blood will appeal to a wide range of readers, from fans of Anne Bishop’s stalwart heroines and engaging prose to younger readers raised on magical coming of age stories. There’s a long way to go on this journey, and plenty to see and do along the way.