Pretender to the Crown (2017) follows the adventures of Willow North, a professional thief who’s always been a lone wolf type of personality. Willow has an inherent magical talent for sensing worked metals: she both sees it ― even in total darkness and through walls ― and feels it. It’s a particularly handy talent for a thief, since she can see where metal jewelry is hidden and when guards with swords are approaching. Anyone with a strong magical talent is required by law to study to become a mage or “Ascendant,” but Willow holds such bitter feelings against Ascendants, who are typically arrogant and abusive, that she hides her talent and uses it for burglary instead.
Willow’s life as a thief gets upended when her former fiancé Kerish, who she hasn’t seen for five years, unexpectedly shows up asking for her help: the king of Tremontane has been assassinated by his Ascendant brother Terence Valant, Kerish’s former employer, who is now usurping the crown, in disregard of the fact the Ascendants are legally prohibited from ruling Tremontane. Now the dead king’s eight year old son Felix, the heir to the throne, is in grave danger, hunted by Terence and his armies of soldiers and Ascendants. Kerish has rescued Felix from the palace and now wants to sneak Felix out of Tremontane to his own country of Eskandel, and who better to help Kerish sneak Felix out of the country than his former girlfriend Willow, the thief?
Pretender to the Crown is the first book in the SAGA OF WILLOW NORTH trilogy, which is a prequel series to the CROWN OF TREMONTANE series by Melissa McShane that I’ve enjoyed very much. McShane’s books tend to hit my sweet spot of intelligently written fantasies with a fairly strong romance element. In this new series we jump back a couple of centuries to find out the history of one of the prominent members of the North family, which is ruling Tremontane in the later books. It’s fascinating to see Willow North’s humble beginnings and the twisted path that will lead her to a place she never expected or wanted to go.
The characters are well-drawn and complex, though the romance subplot in Pretender to the Crown is frustrating. Willow and Kerish have a deep divide over their views of what type of life they should live, which is understandable, but it turns into one of those relationships where you want to shake some sense into both parties and tell them to just communicate with each other. Felix Valant is a charming boy who elicits your sympathy for the difficult situation he’s in.
McShane takes on a challenge in developing the Escandelic society, where the leading families form polygamous harems, with one prince married to several women. At least to some extent, that’s offset by the fact that it’s a matriarchal society, where the wives make the key political decisions on behalf of their principality. For the most part it felt quite realistic, with Kerish’s family having distinct personalities, issues and concerns relating to their lives, their principality, and the chances that Willow and Kerish are asking them to take.
Pretender to the Crown ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, so interested readers should plan on reading the entire trilogy. The second book, Guardian of the Crown, has also been published, with the third still pending. This book, and the series thus far, has some slow spots but overall has kept me engaged and interested in what happens next.