In my review of The Broken Queen, the penultimate chapter of Sarah Kozloff’s NINE REALMS tetralogy, I said I was going to need a “slambang ending” to be able to recommend the series. Unfortunately, after finishing the series’ concluding novel, The Cerulean Queen (2020), I can’t say I got the close I was hoping for.
The final novel picks up where the last one finished (warning, some possible spoilers for books 1-3 ahead), with Cerulia poised to try and take back her throne from the usurper Matwyck. It’s not a spoiler to note she succeeds, given that it happens pretty quickly, and then the novel turns away from reclamation and more toward ruling. The new obstacles include the basic governance (picking a council, freeing the wrongfully imprisoned, etc.); dealing with the remaining resistance, which is still dangerous; navigating the tricky waters of potential alliances through marriage; and finally dealing with an outside invasion of Oros bent on revenge for the destruction of their capital. More personally, Cerulia also has to find out just who she really is, given she’s been forced to play multiple roles during her years in hiding, and she also has to decide who might be her life partner: Commander Thalen, if he’s even alive and if he would still have her (he is and he would), her bodyguard Cielo (clearly he’s up for the idea), or someone else who fulfills the foreign policy needs of her realm. Meanwhile, Thalen, Percia, and others have to settle into their new lives and roles.
I’ve said all along that the story felt like it was lacking that special something that richly rewards the reader, and in my review of The Broken Queen noted, as well, that the series was starting to feel its length — in the book particularly, and overall. Thus, my hope that the final book would redeem it. Unfortunately, The Cerulean Queen, I’m sad to say, was the worst executed book of the four that make up the series. Logistics were often muddy, events were at times implausible, pacing was off, and the book never seemed to have a sense of balance between what was important and what was not.
The problems began at the very start, with Cerulia’s plan to take back her throne. Though I use the word “plan” loosely, since it had to be one of the most poorly through-out reclamation-of-a-throne ideas I’ve ever read. It just didn’t make any sense. I could have accepted the relatively young Cerulia coming up with it, but it made no sense to me that those who were older and wiser, not to mention had military backgrounds, didn’t raise questions. The scene itself was, as noted, muddy logistically, and then Cerulia was wounded and simply left, being tended to and then eating dinner while fighting was still going on and her throne (not to mention her life) hung in the balance. None of it made much sense to me and I grew more annoyed the more I read.
By the time (minor spoiler) Matwyck manages to escape and Cerulia thinks she should have expected he might still have supporters, I was already frustrated enough to write “ya think?” in my notes (not the last time I did so). After all, she wasn’t reclaiming a recently stolen crown; he’d been running the country for years, purging the disloyal, rewarding the loyal. Similarly, frustrating issues arose regularly throughout the novel. Cerulia’s talent of speaking to animals seemed to be used or not for the author’s plotting needs. There’s some sense that a more enlightened form of government might be aimed for, but then there’s an awful lot of bowing and obeisance and unexamined privilege. Events seem random and wholly disconnected from one another so that there’s little sense of unity or narrative threading. This holds true for individual scenes as well as entire narratives, such as the Oro invasion and retreat spanning all four books. Villains are easily dispatched. Scenes are given equal weight despite not having equal impact (for instance, a scene describing choosing a dress would have been fine had it, say, given a deeper sense of character, but I just wondered throughout its inordinate length why I was spending so much time in something that furthered neither character nor plot). I won’t belabor the point.
There’s a workmanlike ability here such that a stripped-down version of this story, say two books more tightly focused on Cerulia’s character, I think, could have offered up something more compelling. The not-so-great queen who opens the story by failing, the daughter who hardscrabbles her way through the life of the average non-royal, grows as a person and also in her power, makes her way back to the throne, then tries to redeem her family’s role by applying what she had learned outside of the palace to better rule. There are hints of that here (though that story would have been better served by a more complicated usurper). But that potential gets bogged down and diluted by frankly far less interesting and original ancillary plots and a “and-then, and-then, and-then” kind of episodic structure. And then it falls apart at the end in terms of execution. Given that conclusion, I can’t recommend beginning the NINE REALMS series.