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In The Demon King, the author of the Heir Chronicles introduced a marvelous fantasy country in which the powers and interests of three groups—the noble families of the lowland Valefolk, the craftsmen and warriors of the upland Clans, and the Council of Wizards descended from a race of foreign invaders—are held in a delicate balance by the line of Gray Wolf queens. We also learned about the Nǽming: a magic-reinforced covenant that prevents the wizards from taking control of the government. Then, in The Exiled Queen, we followed princess-heir Raisa to the military academy in Oden’s Ford, fleeing from a forced marriage to the High Wizard’s son Micah. Her story became increasingly tangled with that of Han Alister, a former street-gang leader who was now being sponsored by the Clanfolk to attend the college of wizardry. Now, in the third book of the “Seven Realms” quartet, these young people move closer to their intermingled destinies, in a complex world held together by tangled agendas and conflicting motives.
Raisa has escaped from attempts to assassinate her, abduct her, and force her into a strategic marriage. Fleeing homeward from Oden’s Ford, she fears she may be too late to prevent her royal mother from disinheriting her and naming her younger sister heir to the throne. But after barely surviving several more attempts on her life, Raisa learns that the Queen wasn’t so lucky. Now she has until the Queen’s funeral to show herself in the presence of all her political enemies, or she will lose her place in the succession. But this means facing unbelievable danger, protected only by a cadet who has suddenly become her Guard Captain, and by two young wizards practicing forbidden arts. After running that gauntlet, she merely has to stay alive until the coronation, in spite of incessant plots against her life, a wearing series of parties alternating with meetings with her advisers (most of whom feel threatened by her), the distraction of a series of wizard murders in the city, and the looming threat of a neighboring kingdom that may come out of its own civil war with enough clout to force Raisa into an uncomfortable corner.
But all that is nothing compared to Raisa’s sense that she is losing her freedom—freedom to act and speak as she pleases; freedom to choose man she will marry. The guiding spirits of the previous queens of her line tell her that when the time comes to make that choice, she must choose love. But her survival as Queen, the survival of her line, and the survival of the Fells as a nation, seem to demand other choices: A highland buck who will never be faithful to her. A magnetic young wizard who has already come too close to forcing her hand. A ruthless king with a talent for murdering members of his own family. Anyone other than Han Alister, who commands her heart. Neither of them would survive long if their secret love were known; it threatens virtually every interest in the Queendom, and beyond. And even Raisa does not know that Han’s bloodline flows direct from the Demon King himself, who made the Nǽming necessary when he broke the world.
Paced sometimes thrillingly fast, sometimes deliberate in its savoring of Raisa and Han’s predicament, this book weaves its many-hued texture towards a chilling climax on the night of the new Queen’s coronation. This sets the stage nicely for Book Four: The Crimson Crown. It’s not perfect, to be sure. There are moments when you might be struck by the unlikelihood of everyone at the highest level of a nation’s government being either teenagers or the parents of said teenagers—or of the things that concern teenagers being so vitally important to the fate of the world. On the other hand, when you feel the frustration of Raisa’s position so strongly that you sometimes pause to rehearse the speech you would have made—when, for example, you want her to accuse the person across the table from her of making multiple murder-attempts on her royal person, but she has to pretend that it didn’t even happen—why, you’ve made it across the “suspension of disbelief” threshold, after all. Across, beyond, and into new-broken ground: that’s where the magic happens in Cinda Chima’s masterpiece world of high fantasy. Come, and be astounded.