Dear Mother, I have met my match in the form of two small old women who eat poppy seed biscuits. Please send more thimbles. I suspect I will be engaged in a great deal of nervous sewing.
Sariva has come to court to serve as one of Queen Oradel’s ladies in waiting. There she will serve her people, her kingdom, and her family both through her social activism, her effort to be a model minority, and through finding a rich and titled woman to marry her. Sariva isn’t looking for love. She is doing her duty and she will do it well. There are only two hiccups in her plan: One, she has yet to even be introduced to the Queen and two, the squire Edwynne.
Edwynne is striving to be a member of the Queensguard while facing two overwhelming challenges. At 16 she’s pretty much stopped growing, which means she’s constantly going up against young men who are taller and stronger than the is — and who will, unlike Edwynne, continue to grow — and her own growing uncertainty and lack of identity in the world. Only recently did she discover that her parents aren’t really her parents; she’s a Northern foundling they adopted, and they simply neglected to tell her because they didn’t want life to be hard for her.
Northerners, like Sariva’s family, face bigotry, bias, scorn, and ridicule almost constantly. Their religion is mocked, their homeland viewed as some barbaric land, and their very presence is likened to either victims or villains. On first meeting, Edwynne takes one look at the lovely little Northern girl — Sariva is five foot even, curvy in all the right places, and ticks every box on Edwynne’s list — and asks about her faith. Sariva, who has already faced mocker and contempt enough for a week on the short walk from one room room to another, sees it as just one more Southerner mocking her and unleashes her anger on the hapless girl.
Their disdain for one another becomes infamous in the court. There is a spark that lights the flames of rivalry between them that will burn anyone who gets in the way. When Sariva discovers that the reason Queen Oradel hasn’t been to court is because she’s been poisoned, she has no choice but to ask the one person she can trust. Because, like it or not, as much as she doesn’t like Edwynne, she needs her help, and Edwynne may be the only thing standing between the kingdom and ruination.
I haven’t read any work by Ennis Rook Bashe before, which made this a perfect book for the New-to-Me Author Week for our Reading Challenge Month. This book features two female characters from very different backgrounds and an alternate fantasy version of our own world set roughly in the Middle East, where magic exists and same gender marriages are seen as normal. It’s interesting to see a character like Sariva, who favors embroidery as a stress release, likes to shop and plan parties, and is actively looking for a marriage, even if it is a marriage of convenience. Sariva is also deeply religious, attending ceremonies, following her Goddesses doctrines, and finding strength in her very religious and tight-knit community. She is not someone who fights the current in an effort to change the world; she would much rather — knowing her limitations and the risks involved with such an approach — go along with the stream, seeing herself as the water that wears away the stone. She wants to do good in the world, but is willing to be patient and thoughtful, unwilling to cause harm to other people. When facing someone who doesn’t want to fight back to defend themselves against the harm done to them, too overburdened with the weight that rests on their shoulders, Sariva — instead of giving a rousing speech or forcing the person to face reality — sits with them. She listens. She offers comfort and the gentle idea that asking for help, as she had to ask Edwynne for help, is a strength of its own.
Edwynne, on the other hand, is more reactionary, lashing out when she’s hurt, taking delight in the suffering of others — especially if she views their suffering as earned. Like Sariva, she’s very interested in fairness and justice, but unlike Sariva, Edwynne believes that actions taken today are better than those taken tomorrow. It isn’t helped by the fact that, at this moment in time, she’s a very angry and hurt young woman.
Her parents lied to her, not telling her who she really was. Now she feels isolated from her friends and family, betrayed and alone. She’s hurt and wants to hurt others, she’s afraid and doesn’t want people to see it. Edwynne doesn’t want to be weak, or to be seen as too feminine, something she equates with being soft, pretty, good for a kiss and a tumble, but not strong enough to defend yourself. Edwynne wants to be strong, strong enough to defend other people, strong enough to defend herself, and strong enough to be recognized as someone worth respecting. She has a chip on her shoulder the size of a sequoia, and it’s too heavy to put down by herself.
As much as I saw potential in the characters, I’m afraid I honestly didn’t care for the story, itself. At one moment, it was a romance, then it was a mystery, then an adventure novel, and then a fantasy epic. The world building faced much the same problem, being more than a bit of a smorgasbord. There are broadsheets and paperwork along with the phrase “punk-ass bitch,” julienned carrots along with guards wearing recording crystals, telephones and television shows in the form of magic crystals, and a discussion on male privilege, as one of Edwynne’s girlfriends rejects her for not being the right sort of woman because she behaves in a masculine fashion. All this with dragons, ghosts, swords, and horse-drawn carriages. Rather than make the story feel timeless, it makes it feel formless.
This was a disjointed read and I really wish the book had picked one path and followed it, which I think the author could have done and done well, rather than trying to walk every path at once. Every time the plot made an appearance, I sighed, because the strength of this book and the only part that held my attention is its characters. Sariva and Edwynne have a natural rapport, bringing out the worst in each other as well as the best, and their relationship — developing from sniping dislike to grudging friendship to romance — feels natural and fun. I just wish the story they were in could have been half as engaging.
P.S. As a note, the endingwhich I mention as I know may not be for everyone.
This review is part of our 2021 Reading Challenge Month for New-to-Me Author Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of TEN great book bundles from almost 100 authors (you can see the details on the bundles, including the fabulous authors who donated books, in our Prize Preview post)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! And don’t forget if you read along with your own challenge book this week, you can earn ten contest entries for writing a mini-review! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on New-to-Me Author Week here.