Book: “The Reluctant Queen” by Sarah Beth Durst
Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, July 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: Not long ago, Daleina used her strength and skill to survive those spirits and assume the royal throne. Since then, the new queen has kept the peace and protected the humans of her land. But now for all her power, she is hiding a terrible secret: she is dying. And if she leaves the world before a new heir is ready, the spirits that inhabit her beloved realm will run wild, destroying her cities and slaughtering her people.
Naelin is one such person, and she couldn’t be further removed from the Queen—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her world is her two children, her husband, and the remote village tucked deep in the forest that is her home, and that’s all she needs. But when Ven, the Queens champion, passes through the village, Naelin’s ambitious husband proudly tells him of his wife’s ability to control spirits—magic that Naelin fervently denies. She knows that if the truth of her abilities is known, it will bring only death and separation from those she loves.
But Ven has a single task: to find the best possible candidate to protect the people of Aratay. He did it once when he discovered Daleina, and he’s certain he’s done it again. Yet for all his appeals to duty, Naelin is a mother, and she knows her duty is to her children first and foremost. Only as the Queen’s power begins to wane and the spirits become emboldened—even as ominous rumors trickle down from the north—does she realize that the best way to keep her son and daughter safe is to risk everything.
Previously reviewed: “The Queen of Blood”
Review: “The Queen of Blood” was a book that seemed to be flying under the radar and much deserved a bigger notice. The story of Daleina’s tremulous rise to the queendom was full of action, pain, death, and triumph, and I loved every minute of it. Ending with her finally on the throne, I was so excited to see where her story went next, so I went into “The Reluctant Queen” with high expectations. Unfortunately, while it still had strong aspects that I liked, over all it didn’t quite live up to those expectations for me.
Daleina has only been on the throne for six months when she learns that she is dying, having contracted a disease that results in her falling into a death-like coma at random intervals, until, after a few short months, she finally doesn’t wake from one. This leaves the kingdom in a terrible state, having lost all of its heirs in the massacre that occurred when Daleina rose to power at the end of the last book. Frantic, she sends out her Champions to search for an heir, but secretly places all of her hope and trust into Ven, her own Champion. And luckily for everyone, he finds someone. But unluckily for everyone, she’s a happy family woman how has no interest in ambition or taking on the dangerous role of Queen.
While this book didn’t live up to my expectations based on the first one, several of the strengths that I so appreciated there were still used here. For one, the world-building remains on point. Renthia is not a safe place to live, and even with a Queen in power, we see that challenges that face the people of a world infested with malicious spirits who wish to do them harm. Like the first book, this one doesn’t shy away from the bloody and tragic results when the spirits gain even an ounce of freedom. And it isn’t only nameless deaths, but ones that our characters and us as readers feel ourselves. By leaning into these horrors, the stakes of this story are high from the beginning and we’re never given a chance to forget what it would really mean should our main characters not find a solution.
There is also a compelling mystery at the heart of the story that leaves readers and the characters questioning the loyalty of everyone around them. While I could guess the identity of the person ultimately pulling the strings fairly easily, the traitor at the heart of things did come as a surprise and had its own tragedy tied up with it.
I also enjoyed reading once again about some of the familiar characters. Ven, of course, was still his excellent grumpy, but dangerous, self. We saw our favorite clever wolf Bane back again. And most surprising of all, got to spend a good deal of time with Daleina’s younger sister as she worked to find a cure for her sister’s illness. Daleina, herself, was also still a joy to read, but this starts to get into my qualms as well. There simply wasn’t enough of her! After spending the entire first book reading about her story, it was tough coming into this one and finding her largely side-lined for most of it, seen through the eyes of others as a regal, powerful figure, while we, who have seen her inner struggles, know there is so much more going on there. I think it was a misstep to essentially bench a character like Daleina who had been given such a good amount of development and was now finally facing the challenges she had been working towards in the first book.
And then, of course, that leaves us with our other major new character, the reluctant heir Naelin. Look, I really, really wanted to like Naelin. For one thing, she’s another example of a middle aged woman serving as a lead in fantasy fiction, something that’s not seen very often. And, what’s more, she’s a mother who must balance her this role with every decision she makes.
I’m not a mother myself, so I can’t speak to the realities of this situation, and I get what the author was trying to do, presenting Naelin in a manner that reinforces that this is the part of herself that she values the most. But after reading an entire book from Daleina’s perspective, a girl who had suffered her own tragedies and left those she loved behind because she recognized the greater duty of protecting them using even her own limited powers, it just rankled to read about Naelin’s struggles here. Naelin who is immensely more powerful than Daleina and who is presented with an even more dire situation. And yet, for almost three quarters of the book, all we get from her is not just reluctance, as the title would suggest, but out right, irrational, refusal to step up.
And I want to highlight the “irrational” portion of that. Her fears are largely based in not wanting harm to come to her children and thinking her best avenue to protect them is staying with them constantly. Yes, in a vacuum this is correct. But she lives in a land plagued by spirits who are only held in check by the power of a queen. Without that queen, without heirs ready to take over should that queen fall at any moment, everyone, including her children, will be exposed to not only danger but likely death. Again and again, Naelin’s actions were so short-sighted that it became harder and harder to like her. At a certain point, it started to even come across as selfishness. Did she think all of the others heirs and queens didn’t have families and loved ones of their own? And she’s even being allowed to keep her family with her!
She does come around in the end, and the last portion of the book has some really intense action and it is fun to watch Naelin’s power at work. But for me, it was a bit too little too late. On top of not connecting to Naelin’s character fully, as the story went on and she dug her heels more and more into incomprehensible refusals, I also began to resent the lost page time that we could have spent with Daleina.
Ultimately, while the story still retained much of what made me like the first book so much (the dark work, great side characters, and Daleina herself), my dislike of the new main character plagued the story too much for me to fully ever enjoy it. I’ll likely still read the next one, as, like I said, Naelin does get herself together at the end of the book, and the story was left with several big questions left open. But fans of the original story should definitely expect a change if they pick up this one.
Rating 6: A disappointing sequel due largely to an unlikable new main character, but not without merit as a whole.
“The Reluctant Queen” isn’t on many relevant lists for some reason, but it is on “Queens.”
Find “The Reluctant Queen” at your library using WorldCat!