Welcome back. In my previous installment, I looked at Sarah Kozloff’s first two Nine Realms books, A Queen in Hiding and The Queen of Raiders. In this second and final installment, I look at the two final volumes of the quartet, A Broken Queen and The Cerulean Queen. Spoilers to be expected.
The Queen of Raiders, book two of the series, ended on a very bittersweet, if not deliberately obfuscatory note. The fate of Cerúlia was unknown, as she was severely injured in her rescue from Oromundo, and then subsequently disappeared. Oromundo had had a severe setback in the burning of Femturan, their capital, and Thalen and the remaining Raiders are at a moment of success, with costs. Matwyck’s grip on his control of Weirandale continues to be a frustrating one for him. And the Spirits are now at the edge of open conflict.
If we follow the Campbellian model of the hero, this novel has Cerúlia firmly in the Abyss. A eucatastrophe at the beginning of this novel, really the end of the second novel’s arc, is responsible for her survival after the events of Femturan. Rescued as she is, her salvation also requires travails and hardships for others, including, unusually, a tropical island shipwreck which happens only so that years later, a character can be in a position to rescue Cerúlia. Although there isn’t an overarching deity like Eru in this work, and instead Kozloff’s cosmology is a contesting set of Maiar, this weaving of the tapestries of fate and destiny by the spirits, and their low level conflicts does very much echo Tolkien in its ethos.
As for Cerúlia herself, once she does make it to relative if temporary safety in Wyeland, her story is a story of trauma, grief, self doubt, a questioning of the rightness of her cause, and the slow healing, with scars inside and out, of all that has happened to her. This is the point in her four book story that she is at her lowest, and where the chain of her story is most vulnerable to being broken by forces external and particularly internal. The scenes of Cerúlia in the Bread and Balm Recovery house, where she is to care for her fellow patients’ ailments, and they to help hers in turn, are poignant and often painful moments as Cerúlia gropes toward recovery. She is indeed broken, and must find her way towards healing.
A lot of the rest of the characters also are in a similar vein. Thalen’s return to the Free Cities is marked by dealing with the remaining Oromundo forces there. There are higher stakes than the comparison one might make to the Scouring of the Shire, lives are lost and there are costs (including a favorite minor character of mine) for the final push needed to evict the invaders completely. It does give Thalen a chance to transfer his overseas exploits into domestic ones, having him grow fully into the leadership role that he has not really wanted but has found himself burdened by since the beginning of The Queen of Raiders. If Cerúlia is the hidden queen who seeks a chance to grow and take her power and authority, Thalen is the Reluctant leader who really doesn’t want any of this, but finds himself taking up the responsibility all the same.
To a much lesser amount, we get perspectives from the antagonists. Sumroth, now with the Magi all dead, is the temporal power in Oromundo, but his fanatic drive for revenge doesn’t fully bring him anywhere in this volume. I think it could have used a little more fleshing out, but the author does show the shift in the tyranny within Oromundo, from the Mageocracy to a military dictatorship. On the Weirandale domestic front, the focus on Matwyck and his troubles mainly surround on his son, Marcot, instead, and Marcot’s romance with Percia, Cerúlia’s foster sister. The coincidental nature of this might seem old fashioned, and it is, but it does help in drawing the strands together for the final volume. And again, I wonder, for all of her being withdrawn from the world for so long, if the spirit if not the actions of Mingyun, fate, aren’t at work here.
In The Cerulean Queen, Cerúlia has set foot in her homeland, although her true nature is not known. Once again fate and coincidence has helped her—she arrives at the palace without much of a plan, but her foster family has arrived for the wedding of Percia to Marcot. Under this guise, Cerúlia gets the access she needs, and the crucial opportunity to prove herself as who she is. The struggle against Matwyck and his allies is ultimately a bloody one, but one that indeed allows her to take the throne. Once upon the throne, the novel shifts into the issues of leadership for a young and untested queen, from domestic issues, to rooting out the remainder of Matwyck’s allies and counterparts. On a personal front, there is a bit with her needing to learn that some of her healing and dependence on animals re-learned in her recovery period need a reframing themselves, once she becomes Queen.
The finale of the last book brings together all of the threads. The conflict foreshadowed since the beginning of the book, a full on conflict between Oromundo and Weirandale, as Sumroth leads an invasion of Weirandale for the falsely perceived crime of Weirandale and Nargis, Spirit of Water, poisoning the waters of Oromundo, causing the deprivation that has launched Oromundo’s wars of resource acquisition since the beginning of the series. While we the reader understand why Oromundo is facing problems with water pollution, Sumroth, and just as importantly, Smith, the Spirit of Fire, are convinced it is a plot, and with Oromundo evicted from the Free Cities, it turns its military in a strike against Weirandale to ruin them once and for all.
While I found the set piece action sequence that ends the book to be compelling and excellently done, I am not sure I found the endings of a couple of the characters satisfactorily, done, however. One character’s death seems really more of a death of convenience to smooth out a rather thorny character problem and potential social conflict that the author clearly did not want in the narrative to foul up the One True Pairing (Thalen and Cerúlia, no surprise). The other character death is far far more confusing and without explanation. I searched through the book afterwards (a joy of reading this one in ebook) looking for a hint or explanation as to why the character died, and I could not come to a good reason for the character’s death.
Looking over these two books, I think that for the most part, the “payoff” of the series really starts to happen in the end part of A Broken Queen, with Cerúlia’s return to Weirandale, and with the finale of the Oromundo occupation of the Free Cities. This is where the series as a whole stops most of its new worldbuilding and starts paying off that work, plotting and character development. The turn of the tide is noticeable, the shift is welcome, for I have read too many series where the author continues to throw out things that are never going to be developed completely or paid off. From a worldbuilding perspective, Kozloff hits the mark here with the series and knowing when to follow through the implications and set up she has already done. From a character perspective, Cerúlia still surprised and delighted me into the last book, as Cerulean Queen shows her struggle with real decisions and problems, and not always taking the wisest or best course.
Cerúlia definitely has to grow into her crown. While the previous three books set her up in various ways to be a Queen—to understand her subjects as in the first novel, to understand leadership, war and conflict, as in the second novel, and to understand and grow into herself after loss and injury, in the third novel, the fourth novel still has her have to come to terms with what it means to actually be a Queen. With her mother shuffled off of the throne relatively early in the series, and a narrative about her ineffectiveness as a Queen a throughline for the series, Cerúlia doesn’t have any real life examples on governance to model on. Cerúlia is portrayed as a destined Queen, the true Queen, the Queen to come—but this is made distinct from being a natural born Queen.
And what to make of the series as a whole?
I do think that at the end, the series does move the Overton Window from grimdark toward a more heroic, positivist fantasy. It’s not Hopepunk in the way that Alexandra Rowland’s novels explicitly set out to be, as I mentioned in the previous entry, this is recapitulating an earlier mode of fantasy, and that is a style that carries through the entire series to the end. This is not to say that the series does not improve upon the Tolkienian novel in significant and tangible ways—especially the roles of women.
And yet for all that the series misses some chances. In particular, the series is starkly very cis and heterosexual by comparisons to the novels I’ve been reading lately in fantasy. It is very much a cisgender world that the characters inhabit. I wouldn’t have noticed this 20 years ago, but I notice it today. In addition, I think the novels could also have used a touch more definition on a revelation regarding the Spirits and their interactions. There is a set of “arc words” that gets brought up several times, but I don’t think the book quite closes the loop on that as well as it might. There is a rising and falling action in how important the Spirits are to the mortal narrative and I am not sure that the unevenness couldn’t have been improved. In the end, this is a human story much more than a Spirit Story, but the Spirits incite action and come close to outright conflict between themselves in a manner that evokes, say, the Iliad. I am not sure, though, that the right balance has been struck.
I think that in the end, Kozloff has shown a good grasp of classic fantasy and its form. The Nine Realms clearly has a lot of Tolkienian-fantasy DNA in it. The author’s comment in a book event that Cerúlia’s story is analogous to Aragorn’s, but with a greater emphasis on other necessary skills for rulership is a good one. Many of the beats here were familiar, the rising and falling action were comfortable and familiar. As events in the real world changed in the time I read the four books, I found that a harkening back to an older and to me very familiar form was, in fact, very welcome for me, personally. I think the series has value for older readers who do want that comfort read, the paces of a story form that will hearken back to books 20 and 30 years ago. For younger readers, readers who, say, only know Tolkien from the movies, what this series offers is a chance to see, in a modern and in many ways improved form, the “older age of the world”.
With this now done, I am curious if the author will turn to more recent trends and developments of fantasy and try her hand in this new age of fantasy. The skills and devotion to her craft are definitely there, and if the author is willing to give that a try, I am more than willing to give such a work a read.
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).