I’ve, unfortunately, been on a run lately in my genre reading of books that are perfectly, well, “serviceable.” They (mostly) keep my interest throughout, offer up some pleasurable reading for a few hours, but never rise above that “solidly decent” level. Nothing startles in the way of plot, language, structure, character. It’s smooth sailing across placid waters with no storms or reefs (i.e. bad writing), which is “nice.” But, also, no dolphins arcing out of the water, no humpback sightings, no sunken ships to explore, etc. In other words, nothing to stir the mind or soul, nothing to grab you and not let go, nothing memorable enough to have you proselytize the book to all your friends. And that’s pretty much where Sarah Kozloff’s debut novel A Queen in Hiding (2020) sits — a good book that will please most, even if it doesn’t excite them.
Tor has decided to release Kozloff’s entire four-book NINE REALMS series over the course of a few months, starting with A Queen in Hiding in January and closing with The Cerulean Queen in April, so readers don’t have to be wary of yet another series that will have them wait several years (at best) to see what happens.
We’re introduced in the first book to Queen Cressa of Weirandale and her young daughter Cerulia. Facing betrayal in her court, Cressa takes the desperate step of fleeing her realm to join her husband in his long-running battle against pirates, seeing victory there as the first step toward reclaiming the throne. On the way to her husband, though, she installs Cerulia in hiding with a commoner family, using her Queen’s Talent to wipe the family’s memories so that they think the husband, Wilim, believes he picked her up as a newly-orphaned stray on his rounds as Peacekeeper. Three storylines therefore emerge from these events. One is Cerulia’s fight against the pirates and attempt to regain her throne. Another is Cerulia’s coming-of-age in a rustic setting far removed from her noble upbringing (in parallel with exploring her own Queen’s Talent — speaking with the animals). And the third is the usurper Matwyck’s attempts to consolidate power and track down and kill the queen and the princess.
Meanwhile, another plot involves the country of Oromondo. There, religious fanaticism and desperation driven by plagues and food shortages has created a militaristic, belligerent nation bent on using invasion to control the resources of its less powerful neighbors. In this storyline we follow both a military officer of Oromondo and a young scholar, Thalen, who lives in one of the nations facing potential war.
A Queen in Hiding is ambitious in its scope, covering multiple years and storylines while moving us across a number of settings and character POVs. And to some extent that ambition meets with success. The story moves at a good pace and does so easily and fluidly — transitions amongst times, POVs, and settings are handled smoothly so there’s no confusion about when or where we are or with whom, and the plot never really bogs down at any point. The world is admittedly a familiar one to fantasy readers, with its quasi-European Middle Ages monarchies and nobility, and various lands embodying the naval power, the “Free States” (here called the Free States), the island nation, the religious fanatic nation, and so forth. As is the idea of each land having a deity (here called a Spirit) that is linked to it and giving its people or rulers a special quality. But if it’s familiar, it’s mostly handled in solid, pleasing fashion, if at times a bit sketchily, with one exception to be noted.
Cressa and Cerulia are interesting, likable characters, as are Wilim and Thalen, if not particularly compelling. Wilim is the stolid rural man with a heart of gold, Thalen the bookish scholar who finds hidden depths. We enjoy spending time with all of them in spite of or perhaps because of their familiar good natures, their determination in the face of danger. The plot meanwhile doesn’t throw a lot of twists at you, but it carries you along easily enough, offering up some tense scenes now and then and several unexpected deaths such that you’re never really sure anyone is safe.
So, A Queen in Hiding is a “solid” pleasurable read for the most part, though a few aspects mar the experience a bit. One is that aforementioned familiarity of setting and character. Another is the sense that while we have big jumps in time, it’s hard to see that reflected in the characters beyond the obvious (Cerulia “fills” out, one character feels more aged, etc.). The villains, both character and country, at this point feel more than a little cardboard, with some attempts to make them more complex that don’t quite succeed. They also suffer occasionally from a convenient lack of competence which at times becomes implausible. I’m hoping that changes in the subsequent novels. Beyond the helpful incompetence, Kozloff resorts to a few other contrivances/coincidences in plotting now and then (more toward the end), and I admit I couldn’t quite figure out why Cressa didn’t use her Queen’s Talent to more effect early on, which in my mind would have precluded a lot of other events (which, of course, could very well be the reason). And while as noted there were some surprising deaths, I can’t say they had any true emotional impact.
Which is sort of how I felt all along while reading A Queen in Hiding. I went along satisfied enough from beginning to end, but never felt invested emotionally in story or character. It was a sequence of events that kept my interest, were well-constructed and smoothly linked, but I kept wishing for something to pull me a bit deeper. A solid beginning, but I’m hoping for more as I keep going in the series.
The Nine Realms Series
#1 A Queen in Hiding January 2020
#2 The Queen of Raiders February 2020
#3 A Broken Queen March 2020
#4 The Cerulean Queen April 2020