Book: “Four Dead Queens” by Astrid Scholte
Publishing Info: Putnam, February 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst
Book Description: Get in quick, get out quicker.
These are the words Keralie Corrington lives by as the preeminent dipper in the Concord, the central area uniting the four quadrants of Quadara. She steals under the guidance of her mentor Mackiel, who runs a black market selling their bounty to buyers desperate for what they can’t get in their own quarter. For in the nation of Quadara, each quarter is strictly divided from the other. Four queens rule together, one from each region:
Toria: the intellectual quarter that values education and ambition
Ludia: the pleasure quarter that values celebration, passion, and entertainment
Archia: the agricultural quarter that values simplicity and nature
Eonia: the futurist quarter that values technology, stoicism and harmonious community
When Keralie intercepts a comm disk coming from the House of Concord, what seems like a standard job goes horribly wrong. Upon watching the comm disks, Keralie sees all four queens murdered in four brutal ways. Hoping that discovering the intended recipient will reveal the culprit – information that is bound to be valuable bartering material with the palace – Keralie teams up with Varin Bollt, the Eonist messenger she stole from, to complete Varin’s original job and see where it takes them.
Review: There are definitely some staple fantasy tropes that are sure to draw me in: dragons, women disguised as men, sisterhood, fairytale elements, etc. etc. Included in these is “thieves as protagonists.” While nothing has ever topped Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, I’m still always on the lookout for a new favorite take on this theme. Not only does “Four Dead Queens” meet that criteria, but it was given an extra boost in that it’s a stand-alone novel. Rare, indeed, in this YA fantasy climate! But while there were definitely some good elements and legitimate surprises to be had in the story, in the end I was left feeling a bit flat after getting through this book.
Keralie is just your typical thief, happy to continue her life of petty crime and freedom. The politics and greater movements of the complicated city that she calls home, made up of four quadrants each ruled by its own queen, exist largely outside of her life and she’s fine with that. Until, that is, one of her jobs goes side-ways and she finds herself caught up in a murder mystery that is greater than could be imagined. Not one. Not two. Not even three. No, all four queens have been brutally murdered. And now Keralie and the mark she hit that lead her into all of this mess find themselves wrapped up in a conspiracy that goes further than they could have ever imagined.
I really liked the complicated world-building that was constructed for this story. The four quadrants and the various cultures and philosophical approaches they take were well-established and interesting. The world felt “lived in” and fully realized in a way that I think is fairly impressive given the fact that there have been, again, a sort of over-abundance of this type of world-building in YA fantasy in the past (ascribing generic traits to regions/cultures and calling your world good). Given the fast-paced nature of the book and the fact that it was a stand-alone, I was pleased to see a decent avoidance of info-dumping to convey this type of background information. Could more have been done? Yes. But it’s hard to both rant about how there aren’t enough stand-alone novels out there and then ding the ones that do come out too heavily for having a restricted word count within which to do their work. So I’ll give that a pass here.
As I mentioned, the story was fast-paced. The action starts from the very first page and there is very little let-up as the mystery unfolds. I was able to guess at a few things here and there, but there were also a surprising number of twists and turns that I failed to see coming. That said, the fast-paced nature of the story could also work against the plot as well. Time itself didn’t feel very well delineated or established. Some of the action felt like it was all happening at once and then a bit later I would realize that no, several days had actually taken place. Again, kind of a weird complaint, but the fact that I was buzzing through the book as quickly as I was almost worked against it. I couldn’t quite settle in, at times. So while I didn’t guess some of the reveals, I’m not sure whether this was because they were truly surprising or because I was so off-balance by the speed of the book that I didn’t have time to think about it.
I also only felt marginally attached to our main characters. While Keralie had many of the traits that I like to see in my thief protagonists, she also felt a bit like a cardboard cut-out of everything we’ve come to expect from a character like this. The romance, also, was incredibly dull and uninteresting to me.
Like I said, I’m always really excited to come across a stand-alone fantasy novel. But they are, by their nature, very different things than books that are setting up, or continuing, a series. Much needs to be done with fewer words and fewer pages. That being the case, I often find myself wishing that authors would choose to simply leave somethings out when they go the stand-alone route. You simply can’t fit in every standard YA fantasy trope that usually takes place over a trilogy or series into one, single book. Does there have to be a romance at its heart? Does the world-building need to be simplified or the action condensed to a few big scenes? Simply put, this book felt like it was trying to mash every fantasy expectation we have into one book and the word count simply couldn’t support it. Luckily, the fast-moving plot largely distracted from this as I was reading. But looking back, I do find it disappointing. If you’re looking for more of a “beach read” fantasy story, however, the past, hard-hitting action of this book might be just the ticket!
Rating 6: Had a lot of good bones in all the places that mattered, but never felt fully fleshed out in a way that is necessary for me to fully buy-in.
Find “Four Dead Queens” at your library using WorldCat!