Once More Unto the Breach: A Kingdom For a Stage by Heidi Heilig

After the terrible events of For a Muse of Fire, Jetta is unsure of herself and her future. Her mother is gone, her father gravely injured, her brother back from the dead, and the boy she cares for has abandoned her. An unexpected reunion leads to a shocking betrayal. Captured and frightened, she is sent back to the one place she never wanted to see again: Hell’s Court. What was once a prison of horrors is now a workshop for Lady Theodora and armory for her brother General Xavier LeGarde. Theodora strikes a deal with Jetta (although she has no choice but to accept) to study her magic in exchange for bringing peace to Chakrana and providing Jetta with an endless supply of the elixir to treat her malheur. Secretly, however, Jetta is still working with the Tiger to bring down the Aquitans.

Much to Jetta’s dismay, the Aquitans are keeping her sociopathic biological father Le Trépas in Hell’s Court as well. If the colonizers can understand how Jetta’s abilities work while harnessing Le Trépas’ expansive powers, the Aquitan armee will be unstoppable. She may be young, but she has the fate of her family, her friends, and her entire kingdom on her shoulders. If she fails, everything she loves will be destroyed, yet success is almost out of reach. The things she will have to do and the horrendous acts she must commit will change her and her people in ways she cannot predict. The final battle is coming, and Jetta is not ready.

In my review of the first book, For a Muse of Fire, I commented that Jetta was standing at the precipice, the hardships of her past at her back and the vast unknown at her front. By the end of the novel, she had stepped off that ledge, not knowing if she’d find peace and security or pain and suffering. When A Kingdom for a Stage opens, Jetta thinks she is floating, waiting for someone to give her direction, but really she’s falling toward a fate she cannot escape. She is surrounded by impenetrable darkness, with only the tiny bits of intel her conspirators and conquerors deign to give her as her guides.

Before imprisonment, Jetta felt stifled by her malheur (what we would call bipolar disorder). The hallucinations made her doubt her reality while her mood swings made it challenging to establish a sense of normalcy. But now with the Aquitan treatment coursing through her, she feels both more stable and less in control. She is beholden to the elixir. It is the only thing that makes her feel “normal,” but is also imposed on her by her Aquitan guards. How must it feel to need something produced by the very people destroying your people but at the same time have those enemies strip you of your choice of whether or not to take it? Even worse is how the Aquitans treat Jetta. Her malheur isn’t something that can be managed, only suppressed. They fear and despise her “madness” more than her necromancy, enough that Leo and Jetta are able to play the Aquitans’ prejudice against them.

We see such deception, so to speak, again but in a different aspect. The Aquitans believe the Chakrans to be ignorant and incapable of ruling themselves and that dominating the kingdom will save their souls from damnation and the citizenry from a life of aimless scrabbling. They bring civilization and salvation to a lawless, heathen land, or so they believe. So when the bigots assume a a Chakran boy is nothing more than a cha, the degrading slur Aquitans spit like venom, he uses it as an opportunity. While the Aquitans are busy sticking their noses in their air and sneering at those below them, the Chakran boy works to undermine them.

The easiest way to not be noticed it to not be worthy of notice. It is an act of resistance, albeit a small, quiet one. Sometimes that is all you have and sometimes it has to be enough…at least for now. But make no mistake, it is resistance. In one scene, an Aquitan soldier indirectly berates a Chakran servant while arguing with another Aquitan, and Jetta and the servant lock eyes for a brief moment. She understands the depth of this silent interaction: “Still, there is comfort in the glance – the shared connection of two strangers who, for a moment, have everything in common.” If the servant speaks up, the Aquitans will focus the full force of their notice on him, with Jetta suffering as collateral damage. For the same reason, she kept her mouth shut in an earlier scene where she knew her backtalk would ripple down to any other Chakran unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. For the Aquitans, power means domination, and domination means making sure every cha feels the burn of oppression.

Second books in trilogies are frequently weaker than their predecessors or successors. They are bridges between what was and what will be, and that often leaves them wanting in terms of plot and action. Fortunately for you, A Kingdom for a Stage was written by the immensely talented Heidi Heilig, so you don’t have to worry about this novel being filler. This is the kind of young adult fiction that makes the whole category look good. Heilig injects OwnVoices and anti-colonialist sentiment into YA fantasy in an evocative and powerful way. Packed with intense action and deep introspection – as well as scenes from plays, newspaper clippings, letters, and sheet music! – it more than lives up to the greatness of A Kingdom for a Stage. I’m genuinely not sure how I’m going to last another year before the third and final book comes out.

A Kingdom for a Stage is available from Greenwillow Books.

Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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