“Who I am is a mother, woodswoman, a charm maker… It is my right to define me, not yours.”
The guardswoman snorted. “I like her.”
“I don’t care,” Naelin short back. “I don’t need your approval, and I don’t care if I fit your image of what a woman with power should be. Find yourself a little girl to brainwash. Just help me fix what you broke before you go.”
Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia series started with her memorable debut, The Queen of Blood. In that aptly named opening volume, Durst introduced us to the beautiful, deadly wooded country of Aratay, where elemental spirits of earth, wind, air, fire, and water have a tangible presence, and any of them would dearly love a moment—just a moment—alone with you, the better to rip you to shreds. Since time out of mind, the spirits have been held in check by a queen who controls their need to destroy, leaving them to indulge their other vice—the drive to create.
That was tradition. Until everything went wrong. Fara, the latest to hold the royal title, became corrupted by the spirits she was meant to control, and at what came to be known as the Coronation Massacre, tried to unleash chaos on her own country and destroy the women who might succeed her.. Fara was killed, and the only one left to inherit the crown was Daleina—a hardworking, not-so-powerful girl with a heart of gold. She has risen, by sheer fate and circumstance, to rule.
Now a new danger looms in The Reluctant Queen. Daleina’s hard-won control is weakening. A mysterious illness affects her ability to master the spirits for short periods, leaving the country defenseless. There are no heirs to protect her people if she fails, and an ambitious queen on the border threatens to take advantage of her weakness. As the race for a cure begins—and the vicious spirits continue to test their boundaries—a desperate search for an heir, should Daleina lose her fight, sends emissaries to all corners of the country, including the heroic Champion Ven, sent to find a woman who very much does not want to be found.
It is a pleasure to visit Renthia again. Durst paints a gorgeous, leaf-strewn horror house setting that makes it easy to immerse yourself in her world, and stay there (I read it in a single afternoon). It is very much a sequel that amplifies everything the first book did right—your favorite characters are back, in a plot that is in many ways a more intense, mature variation of the first, with higher stakes clearly leading somewhere bigger. It’s called the Queens of Renthia—note the plural—for a reason; we’re on a journey with these women that won’t end with anything as simple as a problem solved or a war won. They’ve just stepped onto the a much harder path than that.
Yet his is also a very different story, with very different characters. The first book celebrated the underdogs—those who unlock their potential by dint of hard work, curiosity, and persistence in the face of doubt. Daleina is a hero for the rest of us. No naturally gifted chosen one, she proved herself again, and again, and yet again in order to be taken seriously. In The Reluctant Queen, we meet Naelin, a woman who couldn’t want to prove herself less, whose fires of youth and ambition have long burned to ash. She knows there are more important things in life than clawing your way to the top—indeed, she’s seen the dangers on the way up the ladder. She knows her own mind, and doesn’t need a journey to come of age or find herself, thank you very much. But she is a person with unexplored possibilities still—a person used to living on the bottom, so far down she doesn’t believe she has the right to see the top.
What links these two women reveals what this series is truly about: exploring the different and specific ways girls are wounded and changed on their journeys to womanhood, and all the ways they overcome those wounds—or sometimes don’t, but make them a part of who they are. These methods are far more interesting and relatable than a simple tale of a woman learning to pick up her sword and kick butt (though a couple of badass ladies are here too). This is a series that believes deeply in the untapped potential of those who don’t instinctively capture the imagination—mothers; the downtrodden; those who have seen enough death to snuff their spark of life; and even those who have failed spectacularly, even with the best of intentions.
This is an epic about the people who weren’t born to be anything, but who have regardless clawed their way into who they want to be by inches, leaving debris and wreckage behind them. It’s about those forced to become something they must, whether they have a desire to do so or not, because it will keep them safe and warm. Politics and court intrigue are rampant, of course, but they’re mostly there as a necessary catalyst to explore what Durst wants to say about the way people choose to orient themselves around family, relationships, and power.
Through this lens, the book turns out to be much more adorable than expected from one set in a world populated with earth krakens and bloodthirsty icicles (yeah, that’s a thing). It’s very much concerned with setting the virtues of domesticity against the cold, hard world; as such, a significant amount of time is spent on scenes of cute children, on bickering, on warm slices of family life. Peans to the virtue of teamwork and partnership. There are also new characters who breathe humor, life, and intrigue into the pages. But as ever, Durst does not slack in the heart-pounding-action department.
The Reluctant Queen leaves us on an interesting and experimental note for Renthia—and I’m very interested to see with it take the kingdom, and the reader, next.