I’ve been waiting for a follow-up to Amanda Downum’s Kingdom of Dust for years. Downum’s first three novels, The Drowning City, The Bone Palace, and Kingdom of Dust were rich, detailed works involving plenty of magic and even more intrigue. Now she’s published The Poison Court, an excellent novel of murder and palace intrigue, and it’s every bit as good as I’d been hoping for.
The Poison Court isn’t a sequel to Kingdom of Dust. Instead, it’s a direct follow-up to The Bone Palace, and instead of starring Isyllt Iskaldur, its main character is Savedra Severos, first introduced in The Bone Palace‘s intrigue-riddled court. Savedra is the king’s mistress in Erisín, and secretly, the biological parent of King Nikos’s heir—thanks to Savedra’s dalliance with Ashlin, Nikos’s queen. Nikos and Ashlin know, but if their enemies did, it could destabilise their reign.
Savedra has also inherited the role of royal spymaster, partly by accident. And Erisín is hosting talks between two neighbouring powers. When the soon-to-be-appointed court mage is found dead in the palace gardens on the same night as Savedra’s old political enemies orchestrate a betrothal arrangement designed to help undermine Nikos’s position, Savedra and her uncle Varis find themselves in the middle of espionage, intrigue, and political manoeuvring that could bring down nations. (And ruin Savedra’s tentative, precarious happiness.) For on top of murder and manipulation, foreign spirits are haunting already-haunted Erisín.
Savedra and Varis are two of the novel’s three viewpoint characters. The third is Narkissa Jsutien, a young woman whose marital arrangements have been organised by her aunt as a political fuck-you to the royal house. Narkissa and her betrothed each have secrets of their own, and their own desires and agendas. But who will win, and who will die?
The Poison Court is a story with family at its heart. Family, and the things people do to protect it; the fragility of happiness in the midst of power, and the price of survival. Downum writes lush, gorgeous prose and fascinating characters: This is a strikingly tense, deeply felt, and seriously entertaining novel.
An Illusion of Thieves is, like The Poison Court, set in a single city. But Cate Glass’s Italianate fantasy is less interested in political manoeuvring outright than in the heist caper that An Illusion of Thieves‘ political manoeuvring gives rise to. Glass (a pseudonym for Carol Berg) gives us a novel focused on the struggle to survive while keeping secrets. In Cantagna, magic is a death sentence: Anyone caught using it is put to death, and their family with them.
Romy was once concubine to her city’s ruler. But when she asks him to intercede on behalf of her brother, whose magic lends itself particularly well to theft, she finds herself back in the neighbourhood where she lived as a child—required to keep her brother in line, or both their lives are forfeit. She struggles to adapt: Finding work for herself and occupation for her brother isn’t straightforward. And she has magic of her own, so she feels doubly at risk. When she’s trapped into retrieving an ancient artefact—whose loss means disruption to the balance of power and potentially war—she’s forced to rely on her magic, her brother, and two new magical allies in order to pull off a heist with many moving parts.
An Illusion of Thieves is fun and fast, and a well-executed caper, but it lacks—for me—the satisfaction of a story with multiple major female characters and the pleasure of a world where queerness obviously exists.
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.