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Book: “Queen Among the Dead” by Lesley Livingston
Publishing Info: Zando Young Readers, January 2023
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: In the kingdom of Eire, banshees chill the air, and water-wights lurk in the rivers. But magic is outlawed by the king, and jealously hoarded by his Druid priests.
Neve is the youngest daughter of the king, and Ronan is a Druid’s apprentice-turned-thief, making a living by selling stolen spells. They should be enemies, but their shared hatred of the Druids-and a dark magic that has marked them both-makes them unlikely, if uneasy, allies.
When Eire is threatened by a power struggle, Neve must seize the chance to take her rightful place on her family’s throne, with the help of Ronan and the realm’s most dangerous outcasts. Their journey takes them to the outskirts of Eire where magic still runs free . . . and where an outlaw and a warrior princess might carve out a future with spells and swords.
Review: Anyone who is familiar with this blog knows that I am a huge Juliet Marillier fan. I mean, I devoted an entire years-long running series to re-reading all of her books and reviewing them here. So it will come as no surprise that all it would take for me to request a book might be the barest hint of a book sounds similar to Marillier’s work. And such was the case here!
Long ago, Neve, the younger daughter of the king of Eire, met a strange boy and they fought a powerful and dangerous demon, only barely escaping with their lives. Through this experience, both have now grown to distrust the powerful Druid order that both outlawed magic but also hoarded it to themselves. When they meet again as adults, seeming enemies in the grand scheme of their society, they find that this similar distrust and their own hopes for their country tie them more closely together than they ever could have imagined. And when a powerful darkness begins to seep across the land, they find that, together, they possess a rare and powerful magic that is just what is needed to re-shape the future.
There was a lot to like about this book right from the very start. For one thing, it was apparent that the writing was excellent from the first page. It perfectly fit the tone of a historical fantasy story, being both lyrical but also clear enough to depict a world and culture that has one foot in the world we’re familiar with, but another foot clearly placed in a realm of magic and mystery. It’s a difficult balance, to capture both the historical tone and the whimsical. I also really liked the dialogue. Especially when we first see Neve and Ronan interacting as adults. It was funny and yet still felt natural to the characters, again balancing modern sensibilities of humor alongside a sort of pseudo-historical vocabulary.
Ronan and Neve were also very interesting characters in their own right. I enjoyed the duel mysteries regarding their different natures. It’s one thing to pull off one character with a “strange past,” but quite another to do it with both of your protagonists without one of them dropping in quality. I think I particularly liked Neve, however, if I had to choose between the two. Her character had to work through some very interesting family dynamics (even a few that came in the form of a nice twist towards the end), while also grappling with the restrictions on women and the unique history of Eire that lead to some of these restrictions. Ronan’s story is much more straight-forward in this regard, but still very enjoyable.
I will say, however, that the story stumbled when it came to their relationship. I saw this book billed as an “enemies to lovers” romance, and I just don’t think it really fits into that. I was never able to really identify the “enemies” portion of it, rather than a few brief instances where they each decide not to trust the other. Frankly, the primary emotion this relationship inspired was frustration. The characters made fairly random decisions to suddenly not trust one another, but then the very first second this decision would be tested, they’d be right back to working together and having all the feelings. Not only did the wishy-washy-ness feel unrealistic, but it didn’t serve any purpose to the story other than forced conflict (and like I said, even there, there wasn’t any real conflict, just talk of potential conflict that was immediately dismissed in reality).
Overall, while I think the story did have a weak romance and a bit of a pacing problem (there was a decent amount of the middle of the book that felt like it was dragging), I still came away feeling like this was a pretty solid historical fantasy. The mythology, in particular, was very interesting, and I do think it will appeal to readers who like books like those produced by Marilliar or other historical fantasy authors.
Rating 8: A bit rocky in the pacing and romance departments, but saved by its solid writing and interesting mythological history.
“Queen Among the Dead” can be found on this Goodreads list: Ancient History Historical Fiction Published in 2023