The Queen of Blood (2016) is the first book in an epic fantasy series by Sarah Beth Durst, THE QUEENS OF RENTHIA. Durst seems to be able to write whatever she sets her mind to: YA, urban fantasy, or dark fairy tales. The Queen of Blood is a briskly-paced story that introduces us to an original fantasy world with some unusual magical powers.
Daleina lives with her parents and little sister in one of the “outer villages” in the great forests of the kingdom of Aratay. The forest is filled with nature spirits: air, water, ice, earth, fire and wood. These spirits are not friendly. Their instinct is to kill humans, but the power of Aratay’s human queen keeps them mostly in check. Sometimes there are incidents, but for the most part it is peaceful, until the day the spirits attack and destroy Daleina’s village, very nearly killing her family until she finds the power to stop them.
Daleina is a candidate: a woman with power to control the spirits. If she succeeds in her training, she will become an heir, for the role of queen is not hereditary through bloodline, but through ability. Candidates who prevail in the queen’s academy are chosen by Champions who provide personalized training, to make a potential heir even stronger. There is a network of women who provide support to the queen: the heirs, and the candidates who were not selected as candidates. As hedgewitches, they provide protection to villages and towns. When a queen dies, before the spirits can break free, this network of women puts them under a compulsion until the new queen is chosen.
Soon Daleina is in the capital, accepted into the academy, and learning more and more about the spirits. Meanwhile, Ven, a disgraced Champion who had close ties to the current queen Fara, begins to doubt the queen’s power as more and more random attacks occur. When he finally uncovers the truth, it is far worse than he first thought.
The Queen of Blood focuses mostly on Daleina’s years in the academy and compares her to her competitive classmates. Some readers may think they’re hearing an echo of Harry Potter in the “school years” part of the book, but this isn’t Hogwarts, and the lessons are very different. One of the most interesting characters at the academy is expelled after two years, but the story makes it plain we have not seen the last of her. Throughout her school years, Daleina worries. She does not have as much power to control the spirits as others do; she works hard and studies hard, but it does not come naturally to her. More than one teacher or adult suggests she leave and become a hedgewitch in a village. None of them realize at first that Daleina has survived a spirit attack first hand, and unlike her classmates, is very clear about the danger. That clarity is one of her strongest characteristics.
Daleina is an interesting take on an epic hero because she is not the strongest magically. Her skills lie in other areas and a society that’s grown used to naked power continually underestimates her. She underestimates herself and probably only Ven and her sister come close to seeing just how strong she is.
The realm of Aratay with its massive trees, with its cities and villages built into trees, was different and visually interesting. People avoid the forest floor because of earth and wood spirits, choosing a form of zip-lining to travel via the forest canopy, which leads to some thrilling scenes. The transformation of the spirits, especially wood and earth spirits, was vivid and chilling. At first, I wondered, why a queen, and why a human queen? As The Queen of Blood continues that question is explored in detail. The question also leads indirectly to the motivation of Queen Fara, and makes what she does terrible, because it is very believable and very human.
Ven is not as developed at Daleina but his love for Queen Fara and his struggle to do what’s right made him likeable and engaging. I was rooting for him and Daleina both. Hamon, a healer, is a sidekick, but still a character in his own right; smart, observant and strong.
This is the first thing I’ve read by Sarah Beth Durst. I enjoyed it. The language was not immersive. Several times during the academy section I felt like I was listening to teenaged girls at the mall, but usually that was only for a line or two. I thought there were one or two obvious red-shirt characters; one in particular who seems to have to suffer a lot so that Daleina doesn’t, while still being touched by consequences. None of these problems threw me out of the story or marred my enjoyment.
The Queen of Blood delivers a shocking climax that is well foreshadowed but emotionally shocking. It explains many but not all of the questions about this world (intentionally), and sets us up for a second book nicely. The prose is fluent and I read the book in one holiday weekend afternoon, with a couple of breaks for chores. I eagerly await the second book, The Reluctant Queen.
The country of Aratay is inhabited not only by humans but by wild, deadly spirits whose nature and power derive from air, earth, water, fire, ice or wood. These spirits are hostile to humans, yet are vital to the land. When spirits are killed or their powers suspended, everything tied to the spirits’ power stops working: fires won’t light, winds won’t blow, plants won’t grow, rain won’t fall. So the humans live in an uneasy balance with Aratay’s spirits. Only the power of the Queen of Aratay and certain other women, who have an innate ability to control the spirits, keep them from killing all the people living in Aratay.
At a young age, Daleina discovers her ability to command the spirits when they attack her village. But Daleina’s power was only sufficient to barely protect her own family; everyone else in the village was murdered. Stung by her inability to do more, Daleina studies with a local hedgewitch for five years; then, at age fifteen, she enters the queen’s academy, where girls are trained to understand and deal with spirits, and their ability to command and control is honed. Unfortunately for Daleina, her powers are weak, especially compared to other girls in her class. But Daleina is determined to do what she can to help, especially since the spirits are becoming more uncontrollable and deadly. The best and brightest students at the academy are handpicked by older Champions to be trained as one of the potential heirs to the throne when the current queen dies. Daleina hopes ― against all likelihood based on her limited abilities to control the spirits ― that a Champion will choose her as she nears the end of her four year term at the academy.
The Queen of Blood also follows the path of Champion Ven through these years. Ven, one of the most respected of the Champions, was discredited by Queen Fara when he threatened to tell the council about the spirits’ attack on Daleina’s village and Fara’s failure to use her powers to stop it. Nevertheless, he continues to do his best to protect villages from malicious attacks of spirits. When the headmistress of the academy calls Ven in and asks him to begin training a new heir, Ven makes an unexpected choice.
In some ways The Queen of Blood follows the typical paths and devices of a young adult fantasy novel, with a main character that is developing and growing into her powers in order to achieve her destiny. But Sarah Beth Durst makes some unexpected choices along the way. In particular, Daleina is an unusual protagonist: she’s hardworking, studious and earnest, hobbled by the fact that she doesn’t have nearly the amount of natural power to command and control spirits that her classmates do ― especially Merecot, a supremely self-confident young woman with an ability to command spirits that exceeds all others at the academy. Daleina’s strengths lie in other areas: her sincerity of purpose, her understanding of what is ultimately important, and her focus on cooperating with others rather than competing with them. These aspects of her character become critical to her development as a person and as a potential heir to the throne.
Daleina and several of her classmates at the academy develop strong and supportive friendships, which isn’t always a strength in young adult fantasies. Even with Merecot, who’s convinced of her own superiority, The Queen of Blood doesn’t fall into the trap of making her a repellant person who cuts down everyone around her. Merecot has some unexpected depth, and makes a surprising choice at the academy that reverberates much later in the story.
As Marion mentioned, the country of Aratay is richly imagined, with its arboreal society. Villages, the academy and even the capital city are built high in the enormous trees, connected by a network of rope ladders, bridges and zip-lines. There are some truly fearsome blind zip-lining experiences, where the characters need to detach from one line and attach to another while zipping along. Still, the trees are safer than the forest ground, where deadly earth spirits lurk.
The spirits themselves are vivid creations, in an innumerable variety of types and sizes, ranging from tiny fairy-like air spirits to massive earth spirits. One of my favorites was the air spirit that looks like a six-foot long white-furred ermine with black bat wings, and that can be talked into giving you a ride if you ask it in the right way. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Durst charmingly explains how this world and the myriad spirits in it were born out of taped-together drawings of imaginary lands and the fantastical creatures that she doodled in the margins of her schoolbooks when she was a young girl (obviously we are kindred spirits: I have scrapbooks in which I’ve pasted the best of the drawings that I made while I was taking notes in high school and college classes).
The Queen of Blood is a little slow at times, but builds steadily to a compelling climax. In its best moments this fantasy reminded me of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, though it tells a quite different tale. It has some unusual and original world-building, characters and plot developments, including a truly startling ending that, while not a cliff-hanger, left me anxious to get hold of The Reluctant Queen, the next book in this series.
I think the most impressive aspect of The Queen of Blood is how well-balanced Sarah Beth Durst’s prose is. Dialogue which is meant to come off as witty banter actually sounds like people having a clever conversation; inter-personal relationships, particularly Daleina’s complicated interactions with her semi-estranged family, read as both complex and emotionally authentic for all parties. Scenes which are meant to inspire awe or terror in the reader’s heart are very effective, and even the slower parts add necessary depth to characters or plot points.
Daleina herself was a real surprise to me, and an unexpectedly well-written one, at that. I thought for sure that this would be a typical Chosen One narrative, with Daleina discovering at the Academy that she is the best and most wonderful of all the possible heirs that have ever lived, but that is most certainly not the case. Other students are far better at different tasks than Daleina could ever hope to be, but instead of becoming filled with envy or resentment, she works hard to improve the talents she does possess. And, just as importantly, she collaborates with the others so that they all are stronger together. This support network makes the threat to the citizens of Aratay and her fellow heirs that much more threatening, and Daleina’s determination to protect everyone that much more admirable.
My only quibble was with the romance sub-plot, which seemed to come out of nowhere (almost literally “at first sight”) and was later given a level of gravity which I wasn’t sure was warranted. But the partnership was charming, and there’s potential for further development and changes in subsequent books.
The Queen of Blood was a pleasure to read from beginning to end, and I’m sincerely looking forward to reading subsequent books of any kind from Durst. Her skills with world-building are impressive, but it’s her characters that shine the brightest for me, and I can’t wait to see what lies in store for THE QUEENS OF RENTHIA.