Genres: adult, fantasy
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An idealistic young student and a banished warrior become allies in a battle to save their realm in this first book of a mesmerizing epic fantasy series, filled with political intrigue, violent magic, malevolent spirits, and thrilling adventure
Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .
But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still just human, and no matter how strong or good, the threat of danger always looms.
With the position so precarious, young women are chosen to train as heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, is under no illusions as to her claim to the throne, but simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Ven, a disgraced champion, has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. Joining forces, these daring partners embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will test their courage and trust, and force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land . . . before it’s bathed in blood.
The Queen of Blood is the sort of quiet, more subdued fantasy that mostly feels dreamy and innocent. And then Sarah Beth Durst will turn right back around and remind you at various points that this story has quite the emotional barb. The story of young Daleina, training to be a potential successor to the queen of Aratay, is one in which you will find many of the more common fantasy tropes, but also many subverted. And it’s such an endearing story, and well done in the telling, that I found I didn’t much mind how much of the book follows well worn fantasy paths.
Daleina’s world is one full of bloodthirsty spirits. There are spirits for each of the four elements, as well as tree spirits. These pernicious inhabitants barely tolerate the existence of humans; their blood thirst is only ever barely sated. The one force keeping the spirits from wholesale decimating all of humanity is that of the power of the queens of Renthia. The spirits make a pact with humans in which they choose a queen to whom they submit. The queen alone is responsible for keeping the spirits in check. She must have a mighty power over the spirits in order to control literally all of the spirits in her land and keep them from massacre. Only the best of the best of the candidates can ever become an heir, and only the best heir is ever chosen to be queen.
This is a perfect book for those who like woodlands adventuring of fantasy. Aratay is an arboreal land replete with all of the dreamlike beauty one would associate with a tale told mainly in between the sun beam scattered branches. All of the towns and cities are built high up in networks of interconnected trees. Tree spirits are a constant presence, and their chittering malevolence fills the story with a creeping unease. There is a sense of dread that permeates every page knowing these characters are always in peril. Indeed, in just the first chapter we see Daleina’s childhood village destroyed in a massacre. The slow at first drip drip of blood from above the only sort of warning that chaos is about to descend. Daleina and her family survive thanks only to her latent powers revealing themselves. But her power is not very strong, and she cannot save her village. How did such a thing happen? This is supposed to be impossible; the queen should have total control over the spirits. Is she losing control? Falling prey to the power of the spirits?
We follow Daleina as she travels to a boarding school to develop her power. There is the requisite portion of the book that covers her time in training and developing her friendships and relationships. One thing I do love about this world is that it is woman-powered. Only women have the capabilities to combat spirits, and so only women can ever rule. Men can contribute by being Champions, those who train potential heirs, and forest rangers, those who guard the forest and respond to emergencies. Soon enough, Daleina is selected by a Champion to be trained as a potential heir. She leaves behind her friends and the safety of her school to train rigorously in the real world.
Her Champion, Ven, is in disgrace (a political sacrifice) and was once lover to the current queen. The dynamic between Daleina and Ven is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story. Their relationship is one of mutual respect. Ven was there the day that Daleina’s village was destroyed, and it was he who so bluntly stated that Daleina’s powers weren’t strong enough to save her village. Nevertheless, he sees the strength of character and wits in Daleina that might more than make up for what she lacks in magical prowess. Daleina is no Chosen One, and she is most certainly not gifted beyond belief, something quite refreshing in fantasy.
There is a teensy bit of romance present between Daleina and the healer who forms their trio. It is really quiet and just in the background of the main story, though. Even Ven’s former, and at present conflicted, relationship with Queen Fara is highlighted more. Speaking of, I am always here for morally ambiguous queens who aren’t afraid to drink a cup of blood in sacrifice to gain more power.
And just like the first chapter promises, this is a story that is not afraid to go in for blood. As the story comes to a head and all of the disparate threads wind together, the reader shall not be spared the tension, the dread, the fear, and the bloodshed that has been brooding in the background of every single page of this story. The maelstrom of events in the climax set the stage for an even greater challenge to face in the second book of this series. As long as Durst continues to spare no holding back on the destructive bent of the series I will be impatiently waiting to read it.