Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Queens of Ice and Fire

I first heard of Sarah Fine’s The Impostor Queen in a blogpost about forthcoming books featuring queer main characters. (That blogpost wasn’t talking about The Impostor Queen, but rather its companion novel, The Cursed Queen, which has only just come out.)

The Impostor Queen is an entertaining tale of a young woman, raised to believe she will inherit the magic that keeps her people, the Kupari, safe—but when that doesn’t happen, the priests who raised her turn on her. Elli is forced to flee in order to save her life. She ends up with a ragtag group of outlaws and rogue magic wielders, and discovers that the priests who were raising her, and—she thought—teaching her, were actually using her and all her predecessors as Valtia (that is to say, magic queen) for their own ends. Elli’s the subject of a prophecy—the most powerful Valtia ever is supposed to be born in her generation. But it turns out that Elli is only half the Valtia of her generation. She can balance the powers of ice and fire that magic-wielders hold, and that the Valtia is supposed to simultaneously carry, and she can amplify them: but on her own, she can’t light a candle or freeze a raindrop.

But the priests want to regain control over her, and over all magic wielders, while at the same time the Kupari are threatened by invaders from the north, raiders who steal and plunder from the settled lands, and murder indiscriminately. Elli can’t just settle down in peace with her slowly-growing relationship with ice-wielder Oskar: in order to protect herself, and her people, she has to reclaim the title of Valtia and overthrow the tyranny of the priests.

So far, so good: The Impostor Queen reminds me a little of Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns. Its first-person voice is brisk and entertaining. While it has compelling characters, though, it’s a story whose character-types and general outlines are familiar from long exposure. But its companion novel, The Cursed Queen, is less familiar in its outlines, and thus even more compelling.

The Cursed Queen is that still-rare bird among novels: a book in an epic fantasy setting where the main character is a woman (or in this case older adolescent) who loves women.

I’m not entirely sure I can separate my appreciation for the book from the fact that it’s a good YA fantasy novel with a queer female protagonist. And Ansa, the protagonist, is a pleasantly complicated young woman. Abducted in a raid by the Krigere as a child, she’s grown up to wholeheartedly embrace their warrior culture and become one of them, determined never to be powerless, never to be weak. She loves Thyra, the chieftain’s daughter—but Thyra, though a well-trained warrior, is nowhere near as eager to kill as Ansa is, and nowhere near as convinced that the Krigere way of life is the best one.

When the Kupari witch-queen (Elli of The Impostor Queen’s predecessor) destroys the Krigere invasion force, Thyra inherits the leadership of her people. And Ansa finds herself suddenly struggling to control the fire and ice magic that’s suddenly possessed her—and keep it hidden from her clan, who may cast her out or kill her if they discover her powers. Thyra and what’s left of her clan are caught in a plot spun by her uncle, an exile from the Krigere who now rules a city-state he took by force. With treachery on all sides, and Ansa’s power spiralling out of control, Ansa will have to decide where her loyalty really lies.

I have a couple of minor problems with Fine’s narrative here. Logistics is one of them. None of the cities in this world seem to have much in the way of agricultural hinterland that anyone actually does any observable agriculture in, so I’m not quite sure how they sustain their sizeable populations. And the Krigere seem to have a population in the thousands that they sustain just by raiding, and maybe hunting and gathering, no agriculture at all, as it seems? (But I frequently get sidetracked by the problems of logistics.) Another issue is that the pace in both Queen novels lags a bit in the middle.

But honestly, Ansa is a really compelling character. Compared to Thyra, she comes across as amoral, eagerly murderous—but this is complicated by her characterisation and her history. Ansa’s spent her whole life fighting to be Krigere, to be accepted, to survive: she hasn’t allowed herself the luxury of considering whether the Krigere warrior definition of “strength” is actually a good way of defining strength, while Thyra has had that luxury. The different ways the two of them define strength may drive them irreparably apart, if Ansa can’t reconcile her loyalty to Thyra with her investment in what she sees as the Krigere warrior way of life. And that’s an interesting conflict: there’s nothing shallow about the interpersonal drama here.

Between them, The Impostor Queen and The Cursed Queen leave plenty of plot threads. I suspect there’s a sequel to both in the works: I hope I may see it soon.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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