Rating: 3.75 stars
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Length: Novel

 

“Dux Robert, you once told me that a princess must always get even. I want to get even. I am going to get even.”

“I did tell you that,” Robert said. “I remember saying it. But there is another truth that goes along with it. Before a princess can get even, first she needs to learn how, and then she needs to survive to do it.”

Mankind fled to the stars to escape disaster, but they could not escape themselves. Their new planet lies beneath a red sun that never rises and never sets, and what remains of the descendants of the Ancients is scattered into smaller lands, fiefs, and towns. Swords and knives, spears and bows are the weapons of choice, and men honor noble lords who fight at the head of their armies. Their current king is Arthur Stonebreaker, King of Light, Shadows, and Dark — the three regions of the planet where a planetary ring casts perpetual shadows across much of the world. Arthur tells his children stories of the Ancients, especially of Arthur Hammer, who set forth a code of conduct the king, the duxes, comes, and other nobles must uphold.

Arthur’s daughter, Aeryn, is fascinated by the Ancients — much as she is fascinated by everything. She has endless curiosity, a bold manner, and the confidence of a princess. Arthur knows he will have to wed his children, and the politics of the decision are immense. Wed them to this dux or this lord and Arthur gains allies on the one hand and enemies on the other, as those who feel themselves slighted will find any excuse for revenge. Even though he is in the middle of an uprising and in need of support, Arthur chooses to delay the matter. In so doing, making no choice and giving no sign of either having a preference or the ability to take a side, Arthur ends with a council divided, which leads to his death.

He is followed by Robert Darnald, friend and advisor, who is now regent to the last of Arthur’s children, Aeryn. Orphaned at the age of eight, she is given value due purely to her ability to wed, to give her husband the title of king, her children the titles of prince and princess, and there isn’t a dux, comes, or baro who wouldn’t kill to have her under their control. Robert does his best to give her freedom, having her taught to use a sword as well as a needle, to learn statecraft as well as how to smile, and who hopes that he can find some way to bring peace back to a warring land.

There are four main characters in this book: war, politics, the patriarchy, and Aeryn — and in this I’m not exaggerating for effect. This book is about war, the politics that lead to it, the culture that supports and encourages it, and Aeryn navigating her way through a world of men who want to own her because of her ability to give birth to future kings. Fair warning, this will not be a book for everyone.

There is a lot of combat. From the beginning of the book to the end, some twelve years have passed and there has been very little peace in all that time. One side or the other is constantly fighting, and detail is given to tactics, supplies, maneuvering, and the cost of war. How much food does each man owe when he sends troops to aid his lord, his king? What do you do with the bodies? How are the smallfolk treated after their lord’s manor is attacked, conquered, and set ablaze? There are a lot of deaths in this book, some up close and personal, and others simply casualties of the enormity of battle. And there are a lot of battles.

Politics are heavy and dense in this book as everyone tries to figure out how to maneuver without a the certainty of their king. With him gone, there’s now the chance for a new king to rise, and the code does not allow a man to divorce or rid himself of his wife, so the majority of the scheming is for the sons of these various men. Which son will marry Aeryn and become king? Who has the biggest army, the biggest treasure, the largest number of supporters? Which young man can prove himself to the council as being physically powerful enough — because a man who can’t lead a battle isn’t fit to rule; and a man who is too easily led or too much a fool is a danger to everyone. Everyone has a motive and very few, if any, have Aeryn’s best interests at heart.

This is a world where men rule and hold all the authority and power. Women are relegated to breeding, to being helpmeets, and are given some protections, such as a husband not being able to lay a hand on her if she takes a lover — though he’s free to kill the lover. Women can’t inherit and have no say in their lives, where they marry, or if they marry. There are constant comments about Aeryn being a girl, being weak, being foolish or vain … and to some she proves them wrong. To others, she does her best to learn, to get better. But she is raised in this system and has no power to fight it or change it, as a princess. Even as queen, she will be bound by a husband, by his father, by the council of men determining her fate and the fate of her children.

Aeryn is stubborn, brash, and much like her father, acts first — often with emotions — and thinks after. This causes deaths, losses, and problems and each time she takes a day or more to mull, to think it over and reflect on her actions. Aeryn is a compassionate person to individuals, the sort of person for whom an issue has to be simplified in order to more fully grasp it. But she often takes an interest in those around her and their lives, such as the child of farmers who suffers from illness or the cooks her let her putter in their kitchen.

However, while there’s a lot to hold my interest in this book, there are things that I wasn’t comfortable with, such as the endless commentary on Aeryn — at 14 — being ready to marry. Of men considering her old enough, at middle school age, to be taken by a husband and set to produce children. Because the sun doesn’t rise or set, keeping time is an issue in the book. Things aren’t a day away, they’re a ride away; and because there are no real seasons, people have to find different ways to keep time than days or night, weeks or months. There’s a comment about how Aeryn’s menstrual cycle is so regular that people of the town and castle use that to keep track of time and, when combined with the sexualization of a 14-year-old girl, it did make me somewhat uncomfortable and was another blatant reminder of just how unsubtle the misogyny of this world was.

It’s an interesting book with no romance, no grand love affair, and a large portion of the book spent on battles and political maneuverings. The world building is well done, even if parts aren’t to my taste, and each character had their motivations clearly mapped out. There is, however, a great deal more telling than showing, and the writing kept me at arm’s length from the story. It’s a long read, and it feels like it, but if you’re into military fantasy, you might enjoy this book.

For me, it was a bit tiring. The pacing was very flat; with so much action always taking place, it felt like there were no real moments for character growth. Every scene had a purpose, and that purpose was to lay groundwork for future scenes, to establish character rapport rather than to build it. Technically, the story works; everything is fair and well plotted, every twist and turn is subtly telegraphed and the ending works well for the character Aeryn is laid out to be. Overall, I wasn’t drawn in, and this is one of those books that I took breaks from. I think if the book were slightly more character driven I would have had a better time with it. If you give it a try, I hope you enjoy it.