The Nine Realms – Four Spines To Bind Them

Today we have a full series review of The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff. The series is a quartet of books and in a break with publishing traditions, they all released in the same year over the course of four months. The series contains the following four books: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, and The Cerulean Queen. This review will be a mix of talking about the series as a whole and diving into various pieces and highlights from the individual books. Spoilers for the fairly large review that follows: we recommend The Nine Realms. It’s an interesting take on some classic fantasy tropes and tells a well-contained epic fantasy story. However, there are some quirks that make it tricky to outright recommend.

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Here is a lightning-fast rundown of the plot of the entire series. The books tell the story of Cérulia, Princess of Weirandale, and her journey to take back her throne. A Queen in Hiding tells the story of how her mother’s country (Weirandale) is overthrown and how she barely escapes with her life into hiding. The Queen of Raiders covers her teen to early adult years where she starts waging a guerilla war against people who damaged her land. A Broken Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers from the trauma she received in the war and how she makes her way back to her homeland to reclaim her throne. Finally, The Cerulean Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers her throne and begins to change her kingdom for the better. I am massively skipping over a ton of important side characters, general plot elements, and subplots, but I just don’t have the space to list them all out here. Know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Let’s start with one of the series major “problems” first before we get into all the positives. Initially, I was confused as to why all four books were published so close to one another – but the answer presented itself to me as I got near the end of book one. The Nine Realms is less a quartet of books and more a single 2000 page book that had to be drawn and quartered. I imagine there was a conversation at Tor HQ between Kozloff and her editor that went something like this:

Kozloff: “Well, here’s my amazing book!”
Editor: “Uhhhh, this is 2000 pages long.”
Kozloff: “And?”
Editor: “We can’t just publish a 2000 page book, it might fall off a shelf and kill someone.”
Kozloff: “Well we can’t really cut it up, so what are we going to do?”
Editor: “I guess we will just cut it into four pieces and hope no one notices.”

The illusion doesn’t work. It will be clear to anyone that these books are not four distinct stories. The narrative flows between the books without stop and I suspect I would have been frustrated were I to get to the end of A Queen in Hiding to find the story cut off mid-sentence. But, you may have noticed that when I said this was a “problem,” I put dramatic quotes around the word. Since all the books in the series are already out, this is more of a feature of the series more than an actual issue. The only actual problem here is if you are willing to commit to a fairly long time investment, at a higher price point than usual, for a good story. Personally, I think The Nine Realms is worth it for the following reasons:

  1. The Nine Realms has the depth of a good epic fantasy without the bloat – I really enjoy digging into a meaty epic fantasy with a ton of content I can sink my teeth into. One of the downsides of these huge sweeping series is they tend to have a lot of dilly-dallying. Thankfully, The Nine Realms has the depth of a large scale epic, without the filler content. While it isn’t a Wheel of Time and some parts are over simplistic, the series is well-paced, easy to read, and you get a lot of bang for your buck.
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  2. The magic system is both familiar and original – The magic system revolves around two core concepts. First, each country has a different patron spirit, based mostly on the elements. Each of these spirits imparts different kinds of gifts on their people based on the spirit’s nature. Second, our story mostly focuses on Cérulia, who was granted the ability to speak to animals by the water spirit. Now I have seen a lot of “can talk to animals” powers in fantasy and I was fully prepared to be bored out of my mind by this concept. However, Kozloff’s take on the power is much more strategic and innovative than I was expecting. It is less “talk to animal friends” and more “horse, dog, and wolf general leading her troops into battle.” Cérulia uses her connection to advance her march to her throne, and that leads to some grizzly scenes like when she has to eat a horse she is close with to survive starvation. It’s a new take on a classic fantasy power.
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  3. The story goes beyond the standard good vs. evil trope – Initially I thought this was going to be a black and white story about a princess reclaiming her throne from the bad guys. What this story is actually about is Cérulia slowly understanding why her mother was overthrown, connecting with the common people of the world, and getting a first-hand education of the plights of her country and what needs to be fixed. There is a lot more context to Cérulia’s battle than this type of story usually goes into, and it delights me.
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  4. The world is nicely fleshed out and fully explored over the course of the book – As I mentioned, each country in The Nine Realms has a patron spirit that imparts gifts and shapes their land. I was happy to see that over all four books we get to visit and explore all nine of the countries that give the story its title. While there were a couple that were forgettable, the majority of them have memorable differences and cultures that really bring the world of the series to life. It was a fun place to explore, even if a depressing amount of it involved watching poor people suffer.
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  5. The story is well-paced and easy to read…mostly – Once you get past some initial slow build-up I will talk more about below, the story moves at a nice and exciting pace. I originally planned on just reading book one, but I ended up getting pulled into the story and reading all four over the course of a weekend. There is a very nice flow between the different conflicts and the different characters that keeps everything moving at all times.

There are still some additional road bumps, though. I am not really a fan of the time skips between chapters that keep track of how long has passed since Cérulia fled her home. The skips are meant to give you a sense of urgency because early on you are told that Cérulia has 10 years to reclaim her throne or all goes to hell. It feels like a completely arbitrary timeline that is never actually relevant to the progress of the story. When Cérulia decides to take back her throne it is because she believes she has grown enough in power and maturity to claim it – an element of her character I really liked. In addition, sometimes the books will tell you months will pass, but characters will still be in the same place/time/conversation they were in “three months prior” which disillusioned me to the skips.

Next, let’s talk a little bit about each book and rank them in terms of their quality:

51s938lhwgl1) A Queen in Hiding – Unfortunately, the first book is easily the worst. While there is a lot of fun worldbuilding and introduction to characters, the narrative can be painfully slow at times as the story begins to build up steam and momentum. The other awkward part of the book is it feels like the “prologue” section of the narrative goes on too long. There is a large portion of the book devoted to Cérulia’s mother, and how she lost the throne. Her mom launches a naval war against some pirates to try and rally her people back to her side and win back her throne. However, while it does set up some interesting themes and character development for Cérulia – it is very hard to be invested in the conflict since you know from the back of the book her mother will fail. This subplot lasts almost three fourths of the book, and I wish it was slightly less prominent.

51r04ry5zfl2) The Queen of Raiders Fortunately, the second book is the strongest of the series and helps get the reader back on track. Really, the story takes off in the last 20% of Hiding and Raiders just carries on the torch. Raiders is where we see the biggest character growth in both Cérulia and a lot of the supporting cast. It is also where a number of previously unconnected plot lines begin to come together. The world-building continues to expand and Cérulia’s use of magic starts to get a lot more inventive. All of this combined with a climactic finale that actually lines up with the end of the book makes this a great read.

91omg2eocl3) A Broken Queen – This installment Is third when ranking best to worst, but it is much better than Hiding. A Broken Queen focuses mostly on the damage the conflict has been inflicting on all sorts of characters in the series – and how they heal from it. In addition, book three is where the antagonists start getting a lot of page time in order to give them depth and complexity, getting the reader much more invested in a complicated situation. A Broken Queen was where a lot of the series themes and ideas came to the surface and the book had a nice thoughtful quality compared to the other three installments. Where Broken struggles is the fact that the entirety of the book feels like a slow build-up to a major climax…that happens 20% into book four. This leaves the book with a lot of slow thoughtful moments, but not many big set pieces to remember it by.

71ltzhdknrl4) The Cerulean Queen – The final book in the quartet is a winner, coming in at second best. Cerulean was a very interesting book because it feels like the majority of it is an epilogue but in a good way. Unsurprising spoilers: early on in the final book Cérulia reclaims her throne – and it’s awesome. But, instead of ending the story at this natural point, Kozloff spends the majority of the rest of the book showing how Cérulia implemented everything she learned in her time as a fugitive to become a great queen. It’s a really great example of satisfying character growth and execution of themes at the same time and it really helps the series stand out in the fantasy landscape.

The Nine Realms is a worthwhile mini-epic that has a nice mix of originality and classic flare. It has some issues, but they are easy to ignore with its fun ideas, flowing characters, and engrossing plot. If you are interested in reading this series, I highly recommend you carve out the time to tackle all four books at once. If you give it time, you will likely find that Cérulia’s story is a fun and worthwhile adventure.

Rating:
A Queen in Hiding – 6.5/10
The Queen of Raiders – 8.5/10
A Broken Queen – 8.0/10
The Cerulean Queen – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Come Tumbling Down – Sisterhood Meets Finality

Come Tumbling Down Cover

Seanan McGuire’s fifth Wayward Children novella brings us once again to Eleanor West’s home for the titular youth. It also returns to the story of Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill, sisters whose collective tale of sibling love and loss rises to a volcanic climax in Come Tumbling Down. Beware–spoilers from previous Wayward Children installments ahead!

Jack and Jill have long been two of this series’ deepest, most intriguing characters, and Come Tumbling Down brings their arc to a heavy, satisfying conclusion. I don’t know for sure if McGuire has future (or prequel) plans for the pair, but my hopes are high that this outing remains their last. 

Come Tumbling Down opens on Jack’s dramatic return to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the hands of her significant other, Alexis. Returning staples Christopher, Cade, and Cora quickly find that Jack’s in a heap of trouble: Jill has forced her twin to switch bodies so her master, a vicious vampire from the Moors, can turn Jill into a vampiric life companion. Jill’s body, in which Jack now resides, has been resurrected, and thus can no longer become a vampire (rules are rules). More jarring for Jack, perhaps, is that her brain cannot cope with the shock of being thrust into a new body. She seeks the help of her school friends to bring justice upon Jill and return to her own corporeal form.

Revisiting The Moors is a real treat in Come Tumbling Down. Jack and Jill’s brutal chosen world continues to ask devastating questions about science and limitations. When everything is possible, what shouldn’t you do? The Moors are filled with monsters and powerful creatures all precariously perched in a delicate balance, with factions gaining the upper hand but never taking over completely. It’s a world where balance and brutality beget growth and progress, and Seanan McGuire’s worldbuilding prowess is on full display here. 

It’s a world that yearns for adventure, and McGuire offers it in spades. The group’s journey through The Moors offers a deep dive into the inner workings of the setting. The only downside here is the pacing. Jack ushers her friends through a gauntlet of sights, sounds, and places that are entirely new to the group, but the short runtime requires a breezy jaunt through each narrative beat. As usual, the prose provides beautiful renderings of these locales and inhabitants, but the quickfire nature of the plot makes big events feel small and low-stakes. One exception, however, is Jack’s final confrontation with her sister. Their explosive final encounter boils over with all the turmoil of their past differences and disagreements, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough during the novella’s final stretch. I can’t say much else here for fear of outright spoilers, but if you’re even the tiniest bit invested in Jack and Jill, you’ll want to read every last word of this installment. 

There’s not much more to say about the characters that I haven’t touched on in previous reviews. There are a few new faces–a water demigod named Gideon stands out as my favorite–and our familiar cast of misfits remains as charming as ever. Christopher still earns the “underutilized” award, and I desperately hope that he gets a starring role in one of the upcoming books. Cora, of Beneath the Sugar Sky fame, has a marvelous role to play in Come Tumbling Down, and I’m looking forward to more from her as well. 

Come Tumbling Down stretches the boundaries of the Wayward Children world (or worlds, I suppose), planting seeds for deeper character stories to come. Most impactful, though, is the effortless way McGuire ties the knot on a multi-book arc for sisters Jack and Jill. 

Rating: Come Tumbling Down – 8.5/10

In an Absent Dream – Indecision Meets Duality

In an Absent Dream marks a return to form for Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which faltered in book three after its impressive first and second installments. Here, we learn the backstory of Lundy, a character left tragically underexplored in Every Heart A Doorway

Lundy’s arc in Every Heart was short but sweet, and her interactions with the students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children opened up an entire world of questions about her history with portal worlds. I’m saying this as vaguely as possible to avoid spoilers for In an Absent Dream, but this much I can divulge: the novella has a marvelous, heartbreaking payoff that leads right up to Lundy’s Every Heart narrative. 

We meet Katherine Lundy (never Katie, Kat, or Kathy) in her early days of childhood. She follows the rules. She reads lots of books. Her father is the principal of her school, and her classmates shun her for fear of being reprimanded by his strict hand. She discovers the Goblin Market, a fantasy world inhabited by a hodge-podge of magical creatures where the rules are enforced by some intangible, ever-present enchantment. The Goblin Market’s unique magic forces its inhabitants to provide “fair value” for everything, which is agreed upon by two parties. As we charmingly see here, a pie-maker may decide that pencils are of great value and could buy you two pies per day for a full year. Make an open-ended request, though, and your fellow barterer could decide that your life is fair value; to avoid loopholes like this, residents must make general statements about their needs instead of outright asking for things. There’s a dark side, though; incur too much debt, and you slowly transform into a bird. You can buy your way back to humanity (or the magical beast’s equivalent of it), but it’s a long road–birds can only offer so much value. Lundy befriends Moon, a girl slightly indebted and feathery, but not beyond recovery, and the two explore the intricacies of The Goblin Market together. 

The tale that follows is easily McGuire’s strongest outing in this wonderful and macabre intersection of our world and the fantasy worlds that connect to it. Unlike the other worlds we’ve encountered throughout the series, The Goblin Market’s presence is more transient, allowing Lundy to leave and return for various stretches of time. However, she’s told from the start that she must make a choice before she turns 18: stay in the Market or stay with her family in the “real” world. 

Lundy’s story brims with indecision and streams of consciousness that coalesce into a dynamic and relatable character. She adores the wonder and the magically enforced rules of the market. She loves that fair value puts everyone there on a level playing field; nobody asks for more than what they need and nobody offers more than they can give. To Lundy, the world makes sense. However, as she makes multiple journeys between The Market and her original home, she must come to terms with the choice she knows she must make. And with every trip, the choice becomes more difficult. McGuire’s sharp focus on such a beautiful character–and how torn she is by the looming choice set before her– sets this novella apart from its series’ brethren, and by the time I turned the final page, Lundy shot to the top of my completely real “favorite Wayward Children characters” list. 

Speaking of characters, this installment is chock-full of great ones. Moon is an interesting foil to Lundy. She knows more about the Goblin Market’s rules but is more careless with them. She has a reckless streak that both intrigues and confuses Lundy. The dynamism between the two makes for some satisfying character moments. Other unexpected spotlight-stealers include The Archivist, Lundy’s pseudo-guardian in the Market, and Lundy’s actual father, who has a secret that slowly unravels throughout the tale. 

Dichotomy rests at the heart of In an Absent Dream. Lundy’s deadline to decide between two worlds is chief among them, but it’s more of a lingering presence. Her two actual worlds–her home and the Goblin Market–exist in stark contrast to one another. Lundy discovers sisterly and familial love in our world, even as she watches her family break down in light of her long leaves of absence. In the Market, she finds a comforting world that finally makes sense to her, where fair value drives everyone’s actions. By exploring the two biggest extremes of Lundy’s life, McGuire busts open a number of questions about structure, rules, breaking them, and fitting in. 

If there’s one minuscule quibble I could make about this book, it’s the worldbuilding. The Goblin Market proves a fascinating setting and McGuire laces it with small details that make it feel real. But it simultaneously feels very small and contained, and many of Lundy’s more whimsical adventures are recounted as memories or in passing conversation. Don’t take this as an outright criticism, though. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into, and McGuire has a knack for giving just enough detail to build a vibrant and interesting setting within a small page count.

All of these wonderful components come together for a heartwrenching ending that had me shaking as I turned the final pages. In an Absent Dream doesn’t tie itself in a neat little bow. It ends with an emotional gut-punch that left me reeling for hours after I closed the book.

Following a turbulent Wayward Children outing in Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire brought me back in, full-force, with In an Absent Dream. This is the story I’ve wanted from this series all along, and I absolutely, unabashedly, unequivocally loved it. 

Rating: In an Absent Dream – 9.0/10