Monday, May 24, 2021

The Promised Queen, by Jeffe Kennedy - Review

Title: The Promised Queen
Series: The Forgotten Empires (book 3)
Author: Jeffe Kennedy
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Release Date: May 25, 2021
Reviewing: e-ARC via NetGalley
Reason for reading: Love this author

The Short Answer:
The Promised Queen caps off a trilogy of fresh, engrossing worldbuilding. Eschewing the sea of vampires and shifters, Kennedy reaches into the mythology of earth magic and shapes it into something vital, feminine, and powerful. The romance is positively gravitational between the protagonists -- slow, inexorable, profound, unbreakable. Highly recommend - but start at the beginning of the trilogy.

The Blurb:
Claim the hand that wears the ring, and the empire falls.

Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, claimed the hand that wears the Abiding Ring, but the prophecy remains unfulfilled. Queen Euthalia of Calanthe returned to her island kingdom, but broken in mind and body. With the blood of war unleashing ancient terrors, Calanthe isn’t the haven it once was. Lia must use her magical bond with Calanthe to save their people while Con fights to hold off the vengeful Emperor Anure and his wizards. Con and Lia will have to trust in each other—and in love—to fend off ultimate disaster.

In The Promised Queen, the thrilling finale to the Forgotten Empires trilogy, the fate of the world hangs in the balance as Con, Lia, and their allies sacrifice everything in a final bid to destroy the corrupt empire.

More Details:

I am longtime fan of Jeffe Kennedy's, across the several genres in which she writes. When I first started blogging, I received an ARC for a fantasy romance, and that's when I realized the it's a) an under-represented subgenre and b) I love it a lot.  Since then of course, more authors have come along but I think there's a reluctance among SFF authors to take on the Romance mantle as well, for reasons that should be obvious. Not Kennedy. Ever since publishing The Mark of the Tala in 2014, she's been penning traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasy WITH all the things romance readers demand -- deep emotional engagement, fiery characters, and a happily-ever-after. The Promised Queen follows a newer format with a traditional SFF trilogy carrying the plot-driven conflict, and a romance the spans the three books. I want to be clear: I AM HERE FOR THAT. This book realizes the HEA, but it takes all three books, so know that going in.

Now. I love the Twelve Kingdoms series and its several spinoffs.  A lot. But this new trilogy -- it's crisper, it's fresher, and it absolutely sings. Kennedy takes on something like the Land King myth, where the prosperity of the land is tied to the health of its ruler, and breathes new, feminine life and imagination into it. When The Orchid Crown opens, the world is under the thumb of a ruthless and evil conqueror Anure. He has stripped the lands of their rightful rulers, taking their places in attempt to harvest the power they are entitled to, with the help of some wizards in the tradition of Arthur's Merlin.

Euthalia still rules her own land, but the sword of her betrothal to Anure hangs over her head and that of her domain. There's an expiration date on her freedom, but she's become an expert at extending it. Here's where the worldbuilding is so cool: her magic, her very physiology, is entwined not only metaphorically with the land, but also literally. She is a bit alien, a bit weird, and Kennedy doesn't shy away from exploring some aspects that defy conventional definitions of beauty. (There is also some cool stuff to explore here around how image and façade might enhance your power, but comes at a cost).

Traditional SFF are often coming-of-age stories, with young protagonists who grow into their powers and agency, whether they are political, realistic, or magical, over the course of the story. In fact, I think a large percentage of fantasy published before  2010 or so would be considered YA if they were published today.  What I absolutely LOVE about many fantasy romances is that the protagonists discover magical, political, and sexual potency in a big beautiful tangle of emotion and drama, all the while taking down the bad guys. This trilogy delivers on all of that and I can't get enough.

As the final book in a trilogy, The Promised Queen needs to deliver on three books' worth of tension building. There are three books' worth of skirmishes, torture and atrocities to resolve. And when I was thinking about how to discuss that resolution, it occurred to me that the showdown scenes happened kind of fast. In term of page time, it was about three chapters in the third book, so arguably only three out something like 75 chapters.  That's not much.  Is it enough?

One of the answers that came to me is that it's often the case in real life when there is something terrifying, monstrous, mountainous, that seems impossible to overcome. We might spend 60 chapters or so trying to figure out how to delay the inevitable, to hold on to the tenuous peace we have rather than risk the treacherous journey to the other side. But then, when we get that push, when the fuse is lit, it turns out that maybe that mountain, while not exactly a molehill, is not actually a match for our own efforts, once we put our mind to it. 

Another answer is this:  maybe it doesn't have to be so goddamn bloody and gory. Maybe we don't need a Red Wedding. Maybe we don't need an army of orcs. Maybe a gentler, cleverer, more magical way can be just as effective. And where the romance part of the fantasy romance comes in, crushing the bad guys into oblivion is not the only barrier to Euthalia and Conri's happiness: there is also emotional work to be done.  And the resolution of these obstacles is just as satisfying and probably even more wrenching.

As a longtime reader, I can say Kennedy's worldbuilding chops keep getting better and better, more original and yet true to the best traditions of both the fantasy and the romance genres, and all executed flawlessly.  When she's describing costumes, jewelry, architecture, landscape, or people, imagery leaps vividly to mind. The pacing is on point. Secondary characters fairly pull at the leash to get their own arc, but never distract. And the emotional pull always delivers. If you've read the first two books, you don't need my endorsement to go get this one, it's probably already preordered. But if you were waiting to get an idea of how good the whole trilogy is... well, now you know. Go get it.

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