When last we left Askia, things had gone so very wrong for her. Her efforts to protect her people, her lost kingdom had been completely dashed, and she has been captured. Now, at the heart of the power of her enemy, and nearly completely denuded of her powers, Askia has to find new ways and techniques to resist and oppose Radovan, and not incidentally save her own life. For it is certain that, like his previous captives and victims, Radovan will, within a month, kill her, and take and distribute her power as he did his previous Empresses.
The Seventh Queen continues the story from Kelly’s debut novel The Frozen Queen. Read my review of The Frozen Queen.
For those who do not recall the first novel and its events, Askia, the titular Seventh Queen (and previously, The Frozen Queen) is the young queen of a kingdom that was under threat (and then conquered) by the grasping Empire of Roven, led by an emperor marrying and killing witches in order to use their power for himself and his sorcerers. Askia, with her talents, was the next in line in this gobbling up of the world. The Seventh Queen concerned her flight to safety and searching for help in the Kingdom of Vashir (where she had ancestry and blood ties), found herself embroiled in the politics of a riven kingdom, and at the end of that novel, we were left with Askia at the lowest possible point, brought to the presence and the control of Emperor Radovan. And while her skills as a death witch are still something she was still learning to use by the end of the first novel, Radovan has ostensibly cut off almost all of her power in that regard, too.
Askia might not be able to command ghosts or the powers of death anymore, but she does have one saving grace. While the stone that binds her power takes that away, it does not prevent her from seeing and speaking with ghosts (much to Radovan’s surprise). And the ghosts of Radovan’s previous wives – the Empresses, former rulers and the mighty of the lands that Roven has conquered – harbor much ill will against Radovan and quickly become her allies. Without any physical or esoteric power, Askia’s method of resistance and trying to save herself turns toward the social. I had thought of Veshir from the first novel as a Deadly Decadent Court, but that was a court with a weak center and potent factions jockeying for advantage, with Askia caught in the middle. Here, we have a Deadly Decadent Court of the opposite metal: a strong center with an autocrat that Ivan IV Vasilyevich could take lessons from. As a result, then, with the tyranny and power overhanging everyone, and Askia as the chosen of said autocrat, when Askia gains knowledge and power, she herself is able to leverage fear and also, since she is far more appealing and merciful figure than Radovan, also leverage loyalty and devotion in a way that Radovan simply doesn’t even know exists.
And so The Seventh Queen for the bulk of the novel is a novel of courtly intrigue and espionage, as Askia uses the ghosts of the Queen, and her own skills, to leverage the members of Radovan’s Court, looking for ways to escape, and undermine Radovan’s power. In some ways it resembles the first novel, which had a strong emphasis on the Seravesh Court, but even more so and with higher stakes, because of the sword of damocles hanging over Askia’s head. The novel takes pains here to also show that while Radovan is deadly dangerous, manipulative, ambitious, and every inch the threat he has been offscreen and offstage in the first novel, he is not omnipotent. He has vulnerabilities and complexity, and defeating him isn’t a matter of one weird trick, but a concentrated campaign of finding the weak spot and exploiting it, no matter the cost.
So while the end matter of the novel does give us some solid action beats as Askia puts her plan into action, for the most part this is definitely a game of positional chess, a Queen’s pawn opening of a game between Askia and Radovan where Askia must learn careful maneuvering, to placate and work Radovan, rather than drawing blades and magic at the first chance. So this is a novel where conversations, revelations and manipulations are key and primary and readers who want that sort of intrigue over more action oriented narratives will find much to love here. The fact that the ghosts of the queens, although generally working with Askia, have opinions, approaches and thoughts on how Askia should be opposing Radovan, and those opinions are definitely not all harmonized. And when Radovan himself shows sides to his personality (for all being a hideous tyrant), the character development and Askia’s plight gets all the more tangled. For all that she is determined to save Seravesh, her kingdom, it’s a minefield for her to manage.
It may sound like I am leaning on a car horn at this point, but I really do think that publishers and authors should endeavor to put recaps into series (even duology) books. It’s been a year since I read The Frozen Queen and, especially, since this novel begins in medias res in the same scene as the last scene of the first book, the disorientation I felt as to the whos and whys of Askia’s sudden teleportation to the Roven Court was not enhanced by dropping us in the deep end. Given the importance of the politics of Veshir (where Askia spent a good portion of the previous book), the impact of some of the plotting when we break from Askia’s point of view was diluted for me, thereby. Even given the lack of surprises and innovation in the first novel that I found, it would have been useful to recap what we did get. The previous and current novel are not Extruded Fantasy Product, but they are traditional in a way that, say, Sarah Kosloff’s novels are, but not as successful in that vein.
Askia is a well drawn protagonist, and while she has very little chance to show her martial side in this volume, I still got a good sense of her goals and drive and the writing flows best from her point of view. When we switch to the other point of view we get, Illya’s, the novel does not hit the same highs, and his point of view never sings as well as Askia’s does, and after a certain point, we lose the point of view entirely, making it feel more like an artifice and appendage than illuminating the plot. Given how strong Askia is as a point of view, and how the novel better runs when we are in her head, I think the better choice would have been to eschew his point of view entirely. Given how and where and why his narrative intersects with Askia, I think that keeping in her head would reinforce her narrative, her story better than breaking focus on her. The first novel was far more effective in this regard than this second effort.
The story here is complete in two volumes, and things are settled (too settled, not sure about some of the aspects of the denouement) such that I don’t feel a strong need to know more about what happens to the characters, and so we get a sufficiently finished story in the duology.
The novel is in the end (especially in its ending) almost too conventional for its own good.