At the end of the second book in Heidi Heilig’s Shadow Players trilogy, the Aquitans were stripped of control of their former colony of Chakrana. The people oppressed by colonial rule should be reveling in their sudden freedom, but with the murderous necromancer Le Trépas using blood magic to manipulate the living and the dead, things are about to get much worse. Le Roi Fou, the “mad king” of Aquitan, is not happy about losing a big source of his income and will take whatever exploited resources he can grab, even when those resources are people. Raik, the Boy King, would rather be a puppet than give up his throne, even to his brother. Camreon the Tiger has the stronger claim to the throne, but his time with the rebels puts him at odds with not just his brother but with many of his people as well. Le Trépas sits at the center of this growing hurricane, fueling the winds with his ego and obsession with power.
Jetta, her undead brother Akra, her lover Leo, Leo’s half-sister Theodora, and their friends are the only people who have a chance at stopping Le Trépas, dethroning Raik, and stabilizing Chakrana. But success seems to stretch farther and farther away from them. Leaving the rest of the crew to deal with the Boy King and the undead Aquitans Le Trépas is using to fan the flames of chaos, Jetta and Theodora head to the heart of Aquitan in search of answers and aid. They find both, but not in the ways they expect. Will Jetta trade her kingdom for a king’s stage or will she sacrifice everything she loves to stop a genocidal despot?
One of the many things I love about this series is how Heilig plays with narrative structure. As the protagonist, Jetta’s story is told from her perspective. When Jetta and Theodora split from Leo, Akra, Camreon, Cheeky, and Tia, the scenes with them are portrayed as playscripts, stage directions and all. Other characters appear via correspondence, posters act as scene breaks, and overarching themes peek through song lyrics and sheet music.
The previous books have touched on Jetta’s relationship with the lytheum elixir that keeps her bipolar disorder (what the characters refer to as her “malheur”) in check, but the third explores it in depth. In the past, Jetta has both wanted the elixir and had it forced on her without her consent. At the beginning of On This Unworthy Scaffold, she’s in a position where she feels like she has to have it but can’t access it. Lytheum, the elixir, has been a shackle around her neck and a life-saver, and now she’s come to a point where it is a tool that helps her function. She is neither consumed by the dampening effects of the lytheum or consumed by her malheur without it.
While the plot is still propelled by her bipolar disorder—in the sense that her manic episodes cause bursts of action and her depressive episodes cause slowdowns—she is better able to control how she processes the events instead of being controlled by her malheur. Jetta is able to make an informed choice about her body and do what she feels is best for her health rather than what other people tell her is best. And she finally has friends whose relationships with her are not dependent upon whether or not she’s medicated. They understand her and her malheur and have learned just as she has how to balance consent and respect with helping her manage her mania and depression, with or without lytheum.
In Heilig’s fantasy world, racism is systemic rather than individualized. Racism, as Heilig makes it clear, is more than bigoted words and prejudicial attitudes. Chakran oppression and subjugation is built into every layer of society, from legal to economic to industrial to entertainment to social to cultural to spiritual. By dint of being male and light-skinned, Leo experiences far less of it than Jetta or Akra do, but he is still held down by the weight of Aquitan dominance.
Like Jetta, Leo has also spent much of the series feeling unmoored from the people around him. As the illegitimate child of a high-ranking Aquitan general and a poor Chakrana woman, Leo feels slighted by both the colonizers and colonized. Now, he has settled with his biracial-ness and found a place in Chakrana society. Although many of the Aquitans see him as a corruption of their blood, the Chakrans take him in once he demonstrates his desire to dismantle the colonial empire. He has more work to do in terms of power and privilege, but they are able to ally together as oppressed people.
There may not be an obvious connection between Leo being biracial and Jetta having bipolar disorder, but the through line is the nuances of their experiences. Their stories are as much about the revolution as they are about figuring out what kind of person they want to be in the face of what others try to make them become. Their journeys have very different destinations, but the roads they take often run parallel.
With On This Unworthy Scaffold, Heidi Heilig brings to a close her fiery Shadow Players series. Heilig is so, so good at taking the reader through layer after layer, using tropes to simultaneously play to reader expectations while also undermining both the tropes and the expectations. She goes all in with this book, and no one comes out the other side unscathed. The hits come harder and faster, and the drama is bigger and bolder. Get ready to feel some feelings.
On This Unworthy Scaffold is available from Greenwillow Books.
Alex Brown is a librarian by day, historian by night, author and writer by passion, and a queer Black person all the time. Keep up with them on Twitter, Instagram, and their blog.