The Reluctant Queen – A Little Too Reluctant

51dudes9r4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Last year there was a new novel called The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst, that took me by surprise. The cover caught my eye at the Brooklyn Book Festival , and I was lucky to hear the author, Sarah Durst, speak about it later that day. I decided to give it a whirl, and ended up rating it in my top 15 books from 2016. It was a YA book with an original protagonist, an emphasis on hard work over natural talent, a fascinating world, and a style that was inclusive to both boys and girls. A year later, Sarah Durst is releasing the anticipated sequel, The Reluctant Queen, but does it hold to its predecessor’s greatness?

The Reluctant Queen picks up right where book one left off, our protagonist Daleina having just been crowned queen after a great tragedy. However, not long after the book begins we find out that Daleina is in bad health after her ordeal and the race is on to find her an heir in case she should pass. For in the world of Renthia, everything is made by magical spirits who lust for the blood of humans. Only the strength of will of the queen and her pact with the spirits is what keeps them from tearing people apart. The tragedy at the end of book one has eaten up all the available heirs, so a group of champions set out in search of anyone they might have overlooked in the hopes of finding someone suitable in case Daleina should die.

The quickly transitions into our new protagonist for book two, Naelin. Naelin is a mother of two with a terrible no good husband. She is enormously powerful when it comes to controlling spirits, but has managed to evade detection her entire life – resulting in her having no training at all when it comes to handling them. She is soon discovered by Ven, Daleina’s champion, who attempts to recruit her to be the next heir. As you can probably guess from the book’s title, Naelin is not feeling the idea of being queen. She is worried that focusing on her duties to the crown will result in her children’s death, and that she does not have enough control to be queen.

My biggest problem with The Reluctant Queen is that Sarah Durst spends way too much time restating that Naelin doesn’t want to be queen, and that she just wants to take care of her kids. A large part of the book feels like it could just be cut out if one person told Naelin that if she doesn’t try to be heir, and Daleina dies, everyone (including her kids) will die. There is no other option. Due to this, it is hard to like Naelin for a large portion of the book because it feels like she is being unbelievably selfish. Her personality is otherwise fun and interesting though, and despite her children being the focus of my ire for gumming up the plot progression – they are at least entertaining side characters. When we ended book one there were a lot of interesting plot threads that had been discovered, and The Reluctant Queen picks up woefully few of them. This book almost feels like a side step in the story as opposed to a sequel.

That being said, the ending was very good and made me forgive several of my earlier frustrations. I am still excited for the finale, and I will definitely read it the second I get my hands on it. However, this does not make up for the fact that The Reluctant Queen was definitely a drop in quality compared to The Queen of Blood. I hope that the third book will rise back up to the heights that book one achieved.

Rating: The Reluctant Queen – 6.5/10

An Interview With The Queen of Blood Author – Sarah Beth Durst

I got the chance to meet Sarah Beth Durst at the Brooklyn Book Festival earlier this year where she was doing a panel with Robert  Jackson Bennett and N. K. Jemisin. After reading her fantastic new YA book (review here), The Queen of Blood, Sarah was kind enough to field some of my many questions about her writing process for the book and the future of the story. The transcript is below, enjoy:

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I loved your decision to both give women something special, and keep men equally important in your story. What was your thought process when handling gender differences?

Creating a world is all about making decisions. You choose the fabric of your society. More than that, you choose the threads that comprise the fabric — the threads that determine the color and strength of the weave. One of the earliest decisions I made for the world of Renthia — one of the threads that I chose — was to make men and women equal. It was a very deliberate choice. I wanted to create a kind of utopia… if you ignore all the bloodthirsty nature spirits who want to kill everyone.

The Queen of Blood focuses on the importance of hard work in a word full of the naturally talented, what influenced you to make your protagonist a hard worker instead of inherently gifted?

I didn’t want to write a Chosen One story. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love Chosen One stories. I’ve seen every episode of Buffy, read Harry Potter at least five times, and am still waiting for Merriman Lyon to show up and tell me I’m one of the Old Ones. But for THE QUEEN OF BLOOD, I wanted to write about the one who isn’t picked to save the world, the one who isn’t qualified to be a hero, the mediocre student who has to work hard to even be on the same playing field as her peers. Daleina lacks the innate skill and talent necessary to be a queen, but she is determined to protect her family and save her world.

I wanted to write a story about someone whose true magic is her determination.

What is your favorite kind of spirit and why?

Overlooking the fact that they would want me dead… I like the air spirits. Daleina flies on the back of one that looks like an oversize ermine with bat wings (think Falcor but more vicious), and I loved writing those scenes. Granted, I would almost certainly be sick if I were flying on one — I can’t even handle roller coasters — but I enjoy imagining it sans the nausea.

I loved seeing tree villages of the protagonists homeland, but will we get the chance to explore the other countries in your world and do they differ significantly in how they live with the spirits?

Yes!  We’ll definitely see some other lands in future books (especially book three).

The relationship between spirits and humans is the same across Renthia: the spirits want to kill the humans, and the humans don’t want to die. But there’s variation in what type of spirit is dominant in each country. Aratay is filled with mostly tree spirits, who have created massive forests of trees the size of skyscrapers. To the north, Semo has a lot of earth spirits so it’s a land with sky-piercingly huge mountains. In the east, Elhim is dominated by enormous glaciers. And so forth. Renthia is a world of extreme natural beauty, thanks to the spirits.

Were there any books you drew from as inspiration when writing The Queen of Blood? In particular when crafting your magical school?

One of the coolest things about writing fantasy is that you can build on all the literature that has come before. You can take the tropes (such as the Chosen One or the magic school) and really play with reader expectation by either using or subverting those traditions. So while I didn’t craft my world based on any other book in particular, I did shape it with the knowledge of Hogwarts and Pern and Narnia and Tortall and Valdemar and other worlds.

I think all books are written in conversation with all other books. So I’d have to say my inspiration was everything I’ve ever read.

Did you intentionally make friendship a key theme of the book and if so why?

Nope. That arose naturally. I knew from the beginning that Daleina (the idealistic student) and Ven (the banished warrior) would have a student-mentor kind of friendship, rather than a romantic relationship, and I knew that Daleina would have classmates, but I never specifically sat down and said, “Let’s write about friendship.” It evolved on its own. I think it’s important to leave enough space in the creative process for that to happen.

Do you read fantasy and Science Fiction yourself and what are some of your favorite books?

It’s pretty much all I read. I know, I know, it would be good for me to read more broadly, but I love fantasy and science fiction so much! As it is, my to-read stack is so tall that if it fell, it could crush a small mammal.

Some of my favorites are Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce, The Belgariad by David Eddings, The Martian by Andy Weir, The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson, and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.

What are you hoping to bring to the book in the sequel? How will it expand on the story so far?

Book two, THE RELUCTANT QUEEN, adds a new point-of-view character, Naelin, a middle-age woman with immense power who doesn’t want to use it because she’s afraid that if she does, she’ll die, and she doesn’t want to leave her children motherless. At their heart, these books are about power: who has it, who wants it, what you do with it, and what it does to you.

The Queen of Blood – Something For My Future Daughter… Or Son

25036395You know what type of book I have never enjoyed? One aimed at young women. Why? Probably because I am a man in his late 20’s and books of that nature have never been written in a manner that appeals to me… until now. There is nothing wrong with young adult books, especially those aimed at either gender. I have enjoyed the occasional male-oriented YA novel, as coming of age stories are always fun. However, most female oriented YA’s hold absolutely nothing for me. They tend to usually be dystopian futures, and they all seem to be written in the same manner, something that is so beautifully demonstrated by this webcomic. The issues that these novels confront are not relatable to me, and I wonder why there isn’t more overlap between male and female oriented YA. Then there is The Queen of Blood.

As you might have guessed, The Queen of Blood (QoB), by Sarah Beth Durst, is a female oriented YA book that tells the coming of age story of Daleina. The world of QoB, Renthia, is all about nature and spirits. Humans coexist with nature spirits (fire, air, water, ice, earth, and wood) who help build the world around them, creating food, shelter, and livelihoods for everyone. But this is not a peaceful coexistence, and the spirits want nothing more than to disembowel every human on the planet. The only thing keeping them from doing so are a set of magical women, led by a queen with more magical power than anyone else, each of whom have affinities that allow them to enslave the spirits and make them do their bidding. This control is not perfect, and spirits are constantly breaking loose and wreaking havoc, making the lives of people in QoB wonderful dreams punctuated by moments of intense nightmare. Daleina is a girl who lives through one such nightmare when her entire village is killed when spirits break lose. During the event it is discovered that she has the affinity to control spirits, and is shipped off to the regional magic school (YES) to learn how to hone her skill, serve the people, and potentially one day become queen. The thing about Daleina is that she is weak, embarrassingly so. She is not a traditional Mary Sue, blowing away her professors with her prophesied skills and completing everything with ease. Every day in the magic school is a struggle for her to just pass, and the story is about her surviving by her hard work and clever mind as opposed to natural talent; and for that I love it.

As I mentioned before, I have a lot of trouble identifying with most books written for this audience, but QoB is different. The trials and tribulations of Daleina are something EVERYONE can relate to, not just women. Her story is about the benefit of hard work and dealing with the reality in which there are always tons of people better than you (something that I still deal with to this day). There were many passages that reminded me of personal struggles in my own life, such as when I failed a physics test in college and went to the professor for advice, only to have him tell me that his advice was to quit physics because it was not for me. I chose to leave the field after that conversation (probably for the better) but Daleina makes me wonder if maybe I should have tried harder. While the book may be aimed at girls, it never puts them first and never makes men second class citizens in the story. Despite only women having the affinity, men and women are treated as equals in the society in every way, and many men bring just as much, if not more, to the table in terms of skills and usefulness. I also love that while the story is simplistic and clearly aimed at a younger audience, Durst treats her audience as if they were adults. It impressed me that there is sex, violence, tragedy, and philosophy in the story, and it impressed me even more that are all handled with an even hand and an adult tone. All this makes the story an enjoyable read even if you are older.

The character’s are also great, breaking out for the standard tropes of the genre. Only Daleina and one or two support characters are particularly complex, but I still think that the character depth was above average for this kind of novel and that they were all memorable. Friendship is also a major part of this story, and it was wonderful to see a lead actually develop natural camaraderie with her classmates. The plot was fairly straightforward, with some twists that were clearly visible from miles away, and others that caught me happily by surprise. It has a magic school, which these days is enough to sell me a book in an of itself. The school is fantastic, with lovable teachers, unorthodox tests, interesting classes, and an ambiance that makes me wish I could attend despite the high mortality rate.

The Queen of Blood is a unique book in a field of doppelgangers, distinguishing itself from the YA landscape with its universal appeal and its adult tone. With an interesting plot, a well fleshed out world, and characters I want to hear more about, it is one of the better books I have read this year. The Quill to Live recommends The Queen of Blood to all ages and genders, come see the beauty and horror of Renthia.

Rating: The Queen of Blood – 9.0/10