Dear Ms. Saintcrow,
The blurb for your new ebook, The Hedgewitch Queen, promises “a romantic epic fantasy that centers around a young woman who must advance to the throne amidst court intrigue, conspiracies, and magic.” While I love romance, epic fantasy and magic, the phrase “court intrigue” usually gives me pause. However, I’ve enjoyed your work in the past, and I was curious to see how an author I favorably associate with urban fantasy would treat the trappings of traditional fantasy.
Though Duchesse Vianne di Rocancheil et Vintmorecy studies the common magic of hedgewitches and not the magic practiced by aristocratic courtiers, the Court of King Henri of Arquitaine is the only world she has ever known. When she stumbles on a coup that leaves both the king and his daughter dead, Vianne must follow the last wishes of her Princesse by taking the Aryx, the magical seal of Arquitaine, to friendly territory in Arcenne.
Unsure whom to trust, Vianne turns to the handsome and mysterious Tristan d’Arcenne, the Captain of the Guard and the King’s Left Hand—a man of dark deeds and dubious motives who may harbor tender feelings for Vianne, or who may view her as merely a means to an end. As she journeys to Arcenne with Tristan and a coterie of guards, Vianne alternates between feelings of guilt for surviving the coup that killed her Princesse, mistrust of what seems to be Tristan’s strong affection for her, and desire to pass on the burden of the Aryx to someone more fit to take the throne than she.
Since the story is told in the first person from Vianne’s point of view, the reader gets a forced front row seat for her internal angst, insecurity, and lemming-like urge toward self-sacrifice. Vianne is an engaging narrator, but she is also one of those heroines who repeatedly doubts her value, and disbelieves the many characters in the book who tell her she is beautiful. While the story makes plausible explanation for Vianne’s diminishment of her own worth and mistrust of compliments, the explanation does not make her narration through this section of the story enjoyable. Nor does it endear her to me.
Stubbornly humble, self-sacrificing heroines are one of my pet peeves, but readers who do not mind that character type will likely enjoy The Hedgewitch Queen more than I did. Had I not been reading this novel for review, I would probably have put it down and not returned to it until I’d forgotten how much Vianne annoyed me, but I am glad I had a reason to keep reading.
As Vianne’s confidence and determination increased, so did my interest in the story. It helps that Vianne’s character growth allowed her relationship with Tristan to develop into the sort of sweet but troubled love that will keep many romance readers hooked in hopes of an eventual HEA.
Despite my early annoyance with her, Vianne evolves into a fascinating character whose adventures I would gladly follow into a sequel. She learns to accept and exercise her power. She also learns to trust people, but questions linger. Does she trust the right people? What secrets remain hidden from her?
The Hedgewitch Queen is the first of a two-book series, and while the initial journey set up in the opening acts is resolved, you leave big questions unanswered. Those questions ensured my determination to read the next book, The Bandit King, due out in July 2012, but left me frustrated. While I appreciated Vianne’s character arc, finishing The Hedgewitch Queen did not provide the satisfaction that comes at the end of a good story. Instead, it left me feeling like I’d just read half a book and would have to wait another half a year before reading the rest.
Overall, I’m conflicted about this book. I read it and plan to read its sequel, but it is not a book I will rave about to my friends. I appreciate Vianne’s character development, but she actively annoyed me for a good portion of the book. I eagerly followed Vianne and Tristan’s romantic relationship, but the novel’s unanswered questions left me less than fulfilled on that aspect, too.
The narrative tone of your earlier Dante Valentine urban fantasy novels struck me as pitch-perfect for the subgenre, but the tone of The Hedgewitch Queen did not work as well for me. Though it was engaging and readable throughout, it sometimes sounded modern, and other times seemed to be trying too hard to sound archaic—especially in the deliberate use of archaic spellings like “donjon” for dungeon and “farrat” for ferret.
Other readers might appreciate these word choices, but they pulled me out of the story. My first instinct was always that I was looking at a misspelling. I had a similar problem with the use of deliberately misspelled words like “chivalier” and “oublietta” where my mind wanted to read “chevalier” and “oubliette,” but your decision to italicize those words helped me adjust to them.
The world-building solidified as the story progressed, but it took while to draw me in. Part of the difficulty, I fear, is that this book reminded me a little of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart Trilogy—another high fantasy series with a female first person narrator, lots of intrigue, and a strong romance thread set in a kingdom modeled on medieval France. I realize the comparison is tenuous and unfair, but as much as I wanted to judge your world on its merits alone, Ms Saintcrow, it had to compete for space in my brain with Carey’s creation, and it simply was not up to the task.
On the bright side, I believe I will be less conflicted about this book’s sequel. The excerpt of The Bandit King at the end of the The Hedgewitch Queen hooked me immediately, and I’m looking forward to learning more about Tristan’s thoughts and motivations. Though The Hedgewitch Queen gets a solid C (for “conflicted”) from me, I have high hopes for its sequel.