Author: Kristen Ciccarelli
Edition: Paperback ARC
Publication date: 27th September
Read: 25th August – 5th September 2018
Once there were two sisters born with a bond so strong that it forged them together forever. When they were angry, mirrors shattered, and when they were happy, flowers bloomed. It was a magic they cherished—until the day a terrible accident took Essie’s life and trapped her soul in this world.
Dax—the heir to Firgaard’s throne—was responsible for the accident. Roa swore to hate him forever. But eight years later he returned, begging for her help. He was determined to dethrone his cruel father, under whose oppressive reign Roa’s people had suffered. Roa made him a deal: she’d give him the army he needed if he made her queen.
Together with Dax and his sister, Asha, Roa and her people waged war and deposed a tyrant. But now Asha is on the run, hiding from the price on her head. And Roa is an outlander queen, far from home and married to her enemy. Worst of all: Dax’s promises go unfulfilled. Roa’s people continue to suffer.
Then a chance to right every wrong arises—an opportunity for Roa to rid herself of this enemy king and rescue her beloved sister. During the Reliquishing, when the spirits of the dead are said to return, Roa can reclaim her sister for good.
All she has to do is kill the king.
TWs + CWs: Physical violence, torture, on-page death.
As a companion novel to The Last Namsara, The Caged Queen hits all the right notes of a fiery, action-packed sequel. The story continues from where The Last Namsara ended, but we follow different characters in a completely different political landscape.
Roa, a scrublander and daughter of the House of Song, finds herself a queen without a secure Kingdom. She plans to use her new position alongside Dax, the king, to ensure her people get the freedom and resources that they were never afforded under Dax’s father, the the old king. But she doesn’t fully trust Dax to make good on his promises, and when the opportunity arises to save her twin sister, Essie, and give her people everything they deserve, she may just sacrifice him to do it.
Roa is everything we want to see in a protagonist; ambitious, independent, physically strong, and intelligent with an analytical mind suited to politics. (I also like to imagine she has great hair.) She’s proven herself as a warrior on the battlefield, and a strategist in the council room, but she’s not infallible, and this is what makes her so likable. She’s driven to help her people and her sister, but she second-guesses herself and makes mistakes along the way. Her determination and good intentions are what make us root for her, but her mistakes make us want to yell at her. To me, this is a mark of good character writing. Roa is also incredibly easy to empathise with because she stands at a Catch-22 type of crossroads. Does she save Essie at the expense of Dax, or does she let Essie die so Dax can live?
As characters, Essie and Dax are both easy to invest in, making this decision even more impossible. After an accident years previously, Essie is a human spirit locked in a bird form, which isn’t a wholly original idea, but is explored well. Essie is compassionate, has a greater conscience than Roa, and is always urging her to do the right thing, while reminding her of the consequences if she doesn’t. Dax on the other hand is an enigma, appearing to have poor fighting skills and a lack of interest in politics, despite being king. But Kristen Ciccarelli has a knack for taking our expectations and turning them upside down, so our expectations of and idea about Dax change as the novel progresses.
The political landscape in The Caged Queen is crisply imagined and wonderfully dense, with allegiances changing from chapter to chapter (if not page to page). We’re constantly re-evaluating who to trust as betrayals and coups against the king and queen (separately) are planned. Politics and power drive the plot of this novel, and the pacing is slower than The Last Namsara as a result, but Ciccarelli knows how to ramp up tension until you’re hissing through your teeth, unable to put the novel down for fear of who’s going to die next.
At the heart of this novel are women in every form. They are warriors, spies, servants, wives, sisters, and housewives, and the author shows us that taking on one of these roles is not better than any of the others. Women can be weak and hold great strength inside them at the same time. They don’t have to be fighters to play a significant role in the story and be enjoyable characters. These feminist undertones running throughout the novel are foregrounded in the moments when Roa stands up against sexism among the male councilors (who don’t view her strategies as valid) and fights against the male soldiers that underestimate her, and I can say with complete honesty that I cheered her on. At times she’s a very morally ambiguous character, but you can help but empathise with her indecision, and support her incorrigible spirit.
The lore-esque folk tales that were present in The Last Namsara make a happy return in this book. Stories about the Skyweaver – the goddess of souls – and the Relinquishing – a night sacred to scrublanders when spirits return in their purest form – are interspersed between the main chapters to create layers of world-building throughout. Although the world-building was more spread out in The Last Namsara, and seemed rushed in comparison here, the second book draws fluidly upon what we know from the first and embellishes the finer details about the scrublanders. Ciccarelli’s writing is well-suited to fantasy and she knows exactly how to draw readers into a fight scene. Especially if there are swords involved.
Where The Last Namsara was primarily about relations between humans and dragons, The Caged Queen focuses far more on relations between people. Dragons, although present, take a backseat in favour of an in-depth look at the machinations of people, and there’s an undeniable comparison between the two that begs the question: who are the real monsters, dragons or humans? The answer lies in the climax of the book.
The Caged Queen is a dramatic and dark return to the world of The Last Namsara. Old characters make a welcome return, and new enemies try to take the throne. The writing is stylish and the plot intriguing, and once you’ve read the first book, you’ll definitely want to dive into this one.
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