Guardian of the Crown (2017), the second book in Melissa McShane’s SAGA OF WILLOW NORTH fantasy trilogy, picks up where the first book, Pretender to the Crown, left off. (It’s necessary to read that book first, and this review will contain some unavoidable spoilers for Pretender.) Willow North has left her homeland of Tremontane in company with her ex-fiancé, Kerish, and the rightful king of Tremontane, Felix Valent. Felix, who is only eight years old, is an orphan after his father was murdered by his brother Terence, who usurped the throne. Now Willow and Felix are in a neighboring land, Kerish’s home country of Eskandel, living with Kerish’s noble family and trying to leverage their political clout to help Felix pursue his rightful claim to the throne of Tremontane.
This middle entry in the series primarily focuses on the political maneuvering by Willow and by Kerish’s female relatives. The upper levels of Eskandel society are dominated by a harem system, where multiple wives are married to a single husband. The twist is that it is the strong-willed wives who clearly wield almost all of the power in their country; the men are not entirely figureheads, but close. Willow finds that she needs to develop her powers of persuasion to make the case for Eskandel to support Felix’s claim to Tremontane’s throne.
The storyline is spiced up with a romance subplot (will Willow and Kerish be able to overcome the deep differences that have divided them for years?), assassination plots ― it appears that Terence is more than a little worried about having Felix disrupt his new rule ― and a little freelance burglary. Willow finds that her long-honed skills as a thief, enhanced by her magical ability to see metal even in total darkness or on the other side of walls, still have some use in her new life as a more or less law-abiding person who wields political power.
Guardian of the Crown tries, but doesn’t entirely avoid middle book syndrome. It’s slower-paced than Pretender to the Crown and bogs down a bit with the complex political machinations. I had a fair amount of trouble keeping the various Eskandelic power players and their families and affiliations straight. McShane does provide a list of characters at the beginning of the novel, and even helpfully divides the harems in that list into those aligned with Kerish’s family, the Serjian Principality; those who are opposed; and those who are, at least initially, neutral. But the reader still needs to keep mental track of these various factions and the individuals who wield power in each harem, and the unusual Eskandelic names make the task more difficult. The burglary and other non-political episodes were a distinct breath of fresh air.
McShane also takes on a bit of tricky writing in navigating Willow’s time in Eskandel, because she doesn’t even speak their language. This necessitates the Eskandelic characters communicating with Willow in her language, typically in somewhat broken speech. Most Eskandelics put the verb at the end of the sentence, which added to the sense of reality but did get a little tiresome reading after a while.
Guardian of the Crown does move the overall story in this series forward in a couple of key ways. I did had some hefty doubts about one of those key plot developments, close to the end of the book. [HIGHLIGHT TO VIEW SPOILER]: Willow decides, quite abruptly, that Felix, though an intelligent child, is too soft-hearted and will never develop the personality traits required to be the strong king that Tremontane needs, and decides to search for another Tremontane noble to throw her support behind. If Felix were fifteen or so years old I would have bought it, but an eight year old’s personality just seems way too unformed to make that kind of huge judgment call. Still, it certainly was a game-changer, and it left me anxiously looking forward to reading Champion of the Crown, the third book in this trilogy.