Last year, I chose Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars as one of my Dark Horse selections. In fact, it was one of two picks on my list. In my review, I lauded the book’s lightning-quick pace and worldbuilding, hoping it would herald a new fantasy saga to watch. The Two-Faced Queen, Martell’s second installment, dashed those hopes.
The Two-Faced Queen picks up immediately after The Kingdom of Liars. Michael’s myriad quests begin anew, and plenty of novel challenges are thrown his way. Michael Kingman has been accused of murdering the king of The Hollows, much like his father was accused of killing the nation’s prince years ago. The accusation, though false, turns much of the country against Michael and leaves him with few allies. His saving grace is the Orbis Mercenary Company. Dark, a member of said company, saved Michael from execution by committing him to a blood oath that bound him to the group. Under the mercenaries’ protection, Michael seeks to restore his family’s legacy, prove he didn’t kill the king, and regain the memories he lost to Fabrications, the series’ magic system. But when a serial killer returns to The Hollows, Michael has to hunt the murderer down, too.
I’ve managed a rudimentary plot summary here. But I have to confess: I had a really hard time figuring out exactly what was going on in The Two-Faced Queen. Imagine a rock skipping across a still lake. It touches the water ever-so-briefly, each jump shorter than the last. And though the rock sends ripples across the lake, it only becomes a part of the larger world across which it travels when it sinks to the bottom. The Two-Faced Queen is all skip, no sink. There’s no moment to breathe. Michael jumps from one plot thread to the next with reckless abandon. Storylines from The Kingdom of Liars return, then new ones take the stage with tenuous (at best) connections to the overall narrative. The stone that serves as this book’s story simply skips along in perpetuity. We see the ripples, the surface-level impact of Michael’s actions, but we never understand what it all means. The history of The Hollows and its surrounding nations is so thin that there’s nothing to latch onto. I gave The Kingdom of Liars a pass for this very issue in the hopes that it would resolve itself in book two. But here, it’s worse.
There’s a vibrant, glorious fantasy world hidden beneath the layers of Martell’s world. Unfortunately, it’s a world that seems better fleshed out in the author’s mind than it is on the page. So many factions and groups inhabit The Hollows, it’s hard to keep track. Beyond their distinctive names–Scales, Ravens, Skeletons, and more–it’s near-impossible to tell them apart.
The same goes for the characters. Michael interacts with royals, Ravens, frenemies, tentative allies, mercenaries, and many others. On the page, the only thing that distinguishes one character from another is a name and possibly an ability to use magic. Most of the characters within seem to exist for the sole purpose of witty banter with Michael. They enter stage left, have a conversation with Michael (or a brief fight), then exit stage right. Rinse and repeat. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the dialogue didn’t feel so forced and unnatural. There’s no difference in tone from one character to the next, and the conversational tapestry of The Two-Faced Queen is threaded with clichés.
Fabrications and Weaving, two of the book’s magic systems, suffer from similar technical drawbacks. Weaving is only hinted at in this book, and will likely appear in the next. Fabrications remain an enigma, though the price of using them (losing memories) is still a cool-as-hell idea. The problem? I have no idea how they actually work. Some people are Fabricators while others are not, and it’s unclear how Fabricators get their powers. Again, hinted at in this book, but not enough to lure me to the next. When Michael uses his Fabrications, which can simply nullify other Fabrications, he mentions a “warmth” in his chest. He redirects it toward his target. The descriptions of the magic system in action leave a lot to be desired, and based on the limited lore the book doles out, I’m not exactly clamoring to learn more.
All-in-all, The Two-Faced Queen squanders many of the promises made in The Kingdom of Liars. And it’s important to note that some readers will likely enjoy the quickfire fun that this novel offers. But it lacked the depth I felt I needed after the first installment, and surface-level fun won’t cut it for another ~600-page book.