The Reluctant Queen by Sarah Beth Durst
The Reluctant Queen (2017), the second in Sarah Beth Durst’s QUEENS OF RENTHIA trilogy, follows quite closely on the heels of The Queen of Blood and reveals the consequences of Daleina’s unexpected rise to power as the Queen of Aratay. This series is meant to be read in sequence, so there will be some mild inevitable spoilers for The Queen of Blood.
Just six months after her bloody coronation, Daleina has a large problem on her hands: she is dying, which means that her control over Aratay’s spirits is weakening, which further means that the land and people she is sworn to protect are at daily risk of attack. She gives her Champions the seemingly impossible task of finding a suitable replacement within fourteen days, and just as Champion Ven found Daleina in the first book, he finds a powerful candidate in a middle-aged woman named Naelin. Naelin’s fierce love of her children and innate abilities could, if she is trained properly, make her a formidable queen; on the other hand, she’s stubborn and (rightfully) terrified of the havoc the spirits can wreak. Meanwhile, there are rumors of Semo troops “accidentally” wandering across Aratay’s border, and though Queen Merecot sends politely-worded diplomatic missives, Queen Daleina’s war councilors urge strong action in response.
Daleina, by necessity, is largely confined to her glorious tree-castle, and her storyline is more cerebral: various meetings, special tree-planting ceremonies, poring over maps and trying to out-think Merecot, etc. In comparison to her freedom in The Queen of Blood, she may as well be imprisoned in The Reluctant Queen, whereas Naelin is given the “newcomer narrative,” and once again we go through spirit-mastery training, a long trek through the forest, and a grand approach to the capital city. There are major differences between the two characters, both in background and temperament, and I wanted to see more opportunities for them to work together, especially since Daleina’s approach to the spirits is so unique.
I thought Naelin was a welcome addition, and really appreciated her mature and overly-careful viewpoint. She’s so unlike the brash or flighty younger heroines who often are the stars of these types of narratives, and Durst does a great job of making Naelin stand out as her own woman among the other candidates. Her children Llor and Erian are tooth-achingly adorable, and serve as a sad reminder that childhoods in Renthia are quite short. I was also glad to see more of Healer Hamon and Daleina’s younger sister, Arin, along with the introduction of a perilously amoral character — the type I love to see in fiction, but would never want to meet in person. Overall, the QUEENS OF RENTHIA books are filled with fascinating people, many of whom are women, and each with access to a certain kind of power that they can implement or ignore as they choose.
The constraints of a shorter time period in The Reluctant Queen don’t always work in Durst’s favor, occasionally creating a feverish atmosphere with a rough balance between action, intrigue, and down-time. Several mysteries have an obvious culprit at their heart, though I wasn’t able to guess why or how the deeds were carried out, and the novel’s conclusion left me with more than a few unanswered questions. More than anything, it was hard to escape the sense that Durst is moving pieces into place for an upcoming third novel, one which I hope will be more akin to the exhilarating and exciting first novel that began this series.
I enjoyed the opportunity to return to Renthia, with its cities made of living trees and malicious spirits literally lurking around every corner. Durst’s world and characters are compelling and well-thought-out, even if some of the plot elements felt a little rote this time around. I’d happily recommend The Reluctant Queen to any teenaged or adult fan of fantasy looking for intricate world-building and an abundance of complex female characters.
Sarah Beth Durst continues the saga of the QUEENS OF RENTHIA in The Reluctant Queen, the second book in this series (definitely read the first book, The Queen of Blood, before this one). Renthia is in a world where everything in nature ― air, trees, water, earth, fire and more ― has a spirit that lives, moves … and maliciously attacks humans, unprovoked. These wild, chaotic spirits can be killed, but then their corresponding bit of nature (a tree, a field, etc.) dies and becomes barren as well. So generally people try not to kill the spirits, and the magically gifted women of Renthia, particularly the queen, are charged with keeping the spirits under control with their powers.
Daleina, who was crowned queen of Aratay, one of the countries of Renthia, at the end of The Queen of Blood, is still in the process of adjusting to being the queen when she topples over in a dead faint, briefly loosing the spirits around her to kill several people. Daleina is diagnosed with a fatal illness called the False Death, which causes periodic blackouts (especially when she is exercising her magical power) that will worsen and kill her within a few short months. And every time she blacks out, she’s so close to death that the spirits, no longer controlled by her magic, go wild, killing people and trashing the area. It’s a dangerous and insupportable situation! To make matters worse, Queen Merecot of the neighboring country Semo is gathering troops on the border, which Daleina’s counselors fear is a sign of a pending invasion, despite Merecot’s reassuring messages to Daleina.
So Daleina calls all of the country’s Champions, including her former champion and mentor Ven, to quickly find a new magically gifted girl who can take over as queen within the three months Daleina expects to have before she dies. The task is almost impossible, particularly since there are no more older trained, magically gifted girls. Ven, accompanied by Daleina’s personal guard and friend Alet, embarks on his search. He quickly discards the idea of choosing a trainee from the magic academies as too young and untrained, and heads off into the forests of Aratay to scour the towns and villages, hoping to find an older woman with strong magic who was somehow overlooked in earlier searches.
Ven and Alet soon find Naelin, a responsible married woman with an irresponsible husband and two young children, and extremely powerful magic that she has tried to deny and hide, afraid of the consequences of attracting the spirits’ attention to herself and her family by use of her magic. So Naelin has absolutely no desire to develop control of her magic, leave her village, become an heir to the queen, or ANYTHING else that Ven wants and needs her to do. “I don’t want to be a candidate for queen!” (and its corollaries, “I don’t want my power” and “I just want a quiet life”) is her constant refrain. It gets rather tiresome, though it’s a necessary component of the plot.
Meanwhile, Queen Daleina’s former lover Hamon, a healer, is madly trying to find a cure for the False Death. He’s so desperate that he even calls in his amoral mother Garnah, a brilliant and immensely gifted healer, to help.
Naelin and Garnah, the two primary new characters introduced in The Reluctant Queen, are a welcome addition to the series. While both are intriguing and well-rounded characters, they vividly contrast with each other in their outlooks on life and treatment of others. Naelin has a deep concern for others and a protective instinct, while Garnah uses others cold-bloodedly to advance her own purposes. I expected to detest Garnah thoroughly, but she surprised me by being a more intelligent and enjoyable character than I had expected. She ended up being one of my favorite characters in the book … though, like Jana, I’d hate to have to deal with her in real life, especially if I were standing in the way of her goals! Daleina remains a presence in The Reluctant Queen, visibly matured from the untried girl she was in The Queen of Blood. Merecot, a memorably gifted and ruthlessly ambitious young woman from Daleina’s days at the academy, also makes a welcome reappearance.
Naelin is a rarity for a main character in fantasy literature, a mature woman with children. It was fascinating to see her point of view as an older person with more life experience. Naelin has a strong mama bear streak, and gets understandably impatient when Ven tries to forcibly push her through training without explaining things to her or taking her opinion into account:
“Champion Ven is not making good choices,” Naelin told her daughter, “so we are going to give him a little time by himself to think about what he’s done.”
“Oooh,” Erian said to him, “You’re in trouble. Once Mama locked Father out of the house for a whole night, even though it was raining. He got very wet before she threw him a tent.”
Though The Reluctant Queen shares a similar “train a magical heir as queen” story line with The Queen of Blood as a primary plot element, the differences between the two women who are the subject of the training in each book, along with other elements of the plot, are dissimilar enough that I never got bored. The ending is obviously setting up the story for the next book in this series, more overtly and less smoothly than I would have liked, especially since it involves suddenly opening up some new issues and conflicts as hooks to that forthcoming story. Still, THE QUEENS OF RENTHIA series is an engaging fantasy world with great characters, and I’m looking forward to the next book.
I will read this because I liked the first one so much. I appreciate the idea of a middle-aged “mom” queen; that’s a refreshing change.
It really was a nice change! The way Naelin handles situations is so different and well-written. :)