In Welce, there is a surplus of princesses. The Empress of Malinqua needs a princess or two as brides for her three nephews. When Princess Corene of Welce decides to accept the Empress’s invitation to visit Malinqua, she defies her father’s wishes but she is determined to forge her own life. Unfortunately, when Corene arrives at the royal court in Malinqua, she discovers that the situation is much more complex than she had thought and much more lethal.
The Empress hasn’t named her heir yet, and many of her surviving relatives jockey for the position. The key word is ‘surviving’, as there is a long tradition in Malinqua of eligible royal relatives dropping dead – of illness or accident, of course. But the body count is just too high for Corene’s peace of mind. Could she be the next victim of a convenient accident? And who is responsible for so many corpses?
Corene is an unusual heroine. Strong-minded and sharp-tongued, she is not very likable in the beginning. She could be downright rude, exploit people’s weaknesses without remorse, or throw a tantrum, if it suits her goals, but inside her prickly exterior, there is a vulnerable little girl who yearns to be loved for who she is. Combined with her inexhaustible courage, her experience of the palace intrigues at home, and her desire to find a purpose in life, she makes an explosive and fascinating protagonist.
The characters surrounding her are just as complicated and very diverse. There are two other foreign princesses in Malinqua: the flirty Melissande and the tragic Alette, both of whom become Corene’s friends as they face the unknown dangers together. There are three nephews of the Empress, all aspiring to the throne, all with their own problems. There is also Foley, Corene’s bodyguard from Welce – her stalwart supporter and watchful protector. And maybe even more.
The plot unfolds slowly, as many Shinn’s novels do. Nothing of import seems to happen at first. Corene shops and chats and flirts and explores her new surroundings. She is learning to navigate the treacherous waters of the court, but subtle tension always thrums underneath the mundane, and suspense mounts quietly but steadily. Corene must figure out fast who of her new friends might be her bitterest enemy if she wants to survive her visit to Malinqua.
In the end, when the tension finally snaps, and the embers that’s been smoldering burst into a conflagration, the author flings her reader towards a fiery denouement. The ending is the only flaw of this book. Not the actions, no, they are as absorbing as the rest of the tale, but Corene’s final decisions seem unrealistic and questionable in the milieu of the novel.
Until the very end, I believed the story. I sympathized with Corene’s quest to find a true meaning to her life. But when she ‘found it’, I said: “Huh?” The story didn’t really end. It just took the next logical step, so all the anguish and terror and heroism seemed for naught.
Despite the disappointing finale, the journey was worth the reading. I hope there are more books in this series. I definitely want to read them.