“Your orders haven’t changed, Cal, but mine have.”
The kingdoms of Avantine have mostly known peace since the end of the Aphrasian Rebellion, but stirrings and rumors of the return of a powerful enemy have set the Kingdom of Renovia on defense. Most pressing is the threat of assassination against Queen Liliana’s daughter, Lilac.
Caledon Holt is Queen Liliana’s personal assassin, a duty that is blood-bound and passed on by his father. Ordered to protect the crown and carry out the Queen’s tasks, Caledon will only be free from service once he can secure the Deian Scrolls and bring them back to the Queen.
Shadow of the Honey Glade is training to be a part of The Hearthstone Guild, a secret order of Renovia that keeps magic alive, and also works as assassins for the Crown. Shadow hopes to be a top assassin like Caledon, but it turns out her mother and aunts want her to serve in Court instead.
A chance encounter leads to an opportunity where Shadow and Caledon team up to investigate a source of insurrection in the neighboring kingdom of Montrice. Donning false identities as Lord and Lady Holton of Stavin, the assassin and the apprentice work their way into high society where they uncover a dangerous secret, all while risking their own.
Avantine is a country divided into kingdoms: Renovia, Montrice, Argonia and Serrone, and like kingdoms both fictional and real, the majority of problems rises from a power struggle. Like many fantasy series, magic and ruling might are intertwined, with magic being a source of power that one might covet or share. De la Cruz’s world building shines through, specifically in the myth of Omin and Queen Alphonia, which relates how magic came to Avantine and how the Dellafiore family are the “true” appointed rulers.
In Avantine’s past, magic switched hands between the Dellafiore family and the Aphrasians, resulting in the monks’ rebellion to covet the power for themselves. So magic in Avantine is seen as untrustworthy, unless associated with Guild users, and therefore its presence is suspicious. The presence of magic, specifically Aphrasian magic, is how Caledon and Shadow realize they’re on the right track when it comes to investing Montrice and its sovereign.
Although the history of Avantine is years away from the current setting of The Queen’s Assassin, the repercussions and aftermath of that war is still felt. De la Cruz illustrates this with the juxtaposition of the two kingdoms of Renovia and Montrice, in the cities’ physical designs as well as Cameron’s observation of the citizens. Montrice, for example, is designed as a fortress city, with many of its structures equipped with strong defenses as well as battle architecture, like openings for archers. Its citizens too wear a sort of battle armor, in their gaudy dress and loud designs as a means of posturing. Renovia on the other hand, while grand, has stronger people in Caledon’s eyes, and there’s no need for extravagance and decadence as a shield.
Tagged as YA romance, The Queen’s Assassin relies on the familiar trope of strangers-to-lovers through a shared experience and snuggling in a cave together for warmth (a fanfiction classic). But what could potentially come off as cheesy is instead engaging, with will-they won’t-they tension that is perfectly balanced against the rest of the plot.
This isn’t to say that de la Cruz reworks the trope or turns it on its head, but rather that it doesn’t feel tired. Readers of YA and/or romance are quick to recognize the pattern of protagonists falling for each other and grappling with feelings; it’s a matter of how that process is conveyed, and how well the tension can be maintained before the obvious confession or physical entanglement. Caledon and Shadow recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as their attraction to each other, and it’s the individual battle of their sense of duty versus their feelings that is fresh and exciting as opposed to problems of miscommunication (although that’s present at times too).
One of the more technical touches of The Queen’s Assassin is the switch between narratives between Shadow and Caledon, but also between first-person and third-person omniscient. Readers are given more personal access to Shadow’s thoughts and ideas, while the narrative of the story more closely follows the journey through Caledon and his initiatives. In part, this gives readers multiple perspectives on any one incident that occurs within the story, but it also shows the wide gap of experience between the protagonists, and a fuller understanding of the characters perception of each other. For example, Shadow may seem naïve to Caledon, although she’s been trained by The Guild; while Shadow feels that Caledon may be arrogant as opposed to just more experienced. The switch between narrators isn’t jarring, and both seem reliable until the big reveal at the end, which was a pleasant and unexpected twist.
As the first book in a duet, The Queen’s Assassin is a fun romp of a love story involving espionage, magic, and royalty, and lays a foundation for a deeper exploration of the relationship for the next book.
Gabriella Tutino is a NYC-based freelance court reporter, writer and book reviewer. Her work appears on Tor.com, Comics MNT, the US Review of Books, and Highbrow Magazine. Her favorite topics are mythology, anime, and fashion. You can find her travel blog here and follow her on Twitter @gabriellatutino.