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REVIEW: The Hedgewitch Queen by Lillith Saintcrow

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.

The Hedge Witch Queen by Lilith SaintcrowThough 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.

~ Josephine

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Josephine

Josephine is a professional bibliophile whose hobbies include reading and writing. She enjoys genre fiction in general, and romance in particular. She is especially fond of romances with Paranormal, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Urban Fantasy elements. Her list of favorite authors changes with her mood but she's always eager to read the next good book.

21 Comments

  1. Brian
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 09:17:24

    Thanks for the review. I’ve liked her stuff in the past (Dante Valentine, Jill Kismet, Steelflower, etc.) and pre-ordered this one. Jacqueline Carey is one of my favorites so I may run into some of the same issues you did, I guess we’ll see.

    It’s interesting to see one of the big six experimenting with an ebook only release and they certainly priced it right at $3 (although the sequel will be $8).

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  2. Josephine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 10:22:10

    @Brian: $8! That is rough. The Hedgewitch Queen is not the sort of book that will leave readers ambivalent about its sequel. However, the average price of both books is $5.50, which is acceptable for a novel of that length. It will be interesting to see how they price future ebook-only releases.

    Re: Kushiel’s Dart – I’m actually rereading this novel because I wanted to know whether I was crazy to keep thinking of it as I read The Hedgewitch Queen. The two are very different, but it’s like there’s a slot in my brain labeled “Medieval-esque Female First-Person Francophile Fantasy” and that slot is all filled up with Carey.

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  3. Jia
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 10:31:04

    Welcome to DA, Josephine! I have this in my TBR pile but I’m wavering. I have a love/hate relationship with Saintcrow’s work but I’m a sucker for female-focused fantasy. I guess we’ll see. Like Brian, Jacqueline Carey is one of my favorite writers so she ends up being the standard by which I judge other writers in this subgenre.

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  4. Faye
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 11:32:59

    I want to try this, but I found the name Arquitaine so immediately annoying (really, if you’re going to adapt well-known actual place names to your own end, do more than just add a letter- that smacks of lazy) that I just don’t know if I can handle it. Other than that, it sounds intriguing. There’s plenty of room in my heart for more Kushiel-type universes.

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  5. cbackson
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 12:01:59

    @Jia: I have a love/hate relationship with Saintcrow’s books as well. A lot of her heroines are seriously damaged people (I’m looking at you, Dante Valentine), and the first-person POV means that you’re right there through every moment of self-doubt,self-hatred, and self-deceit, of which there tend to be many. I usually like the worldbuilding a lot, and I’m a fan of hardass lady heroes. But I often find her heroines’ headspace a tough place to be – and they’re prone to occasional TSTL moments, which are harder to take in first-person, I think.

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  6. Josephine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 12:23:57

    @Jia: Thanks. Happy to be here.
    Re: The Carey Standard: Now that I’m rereading Kushiel’s Dart I am realizing anew how good it is. That trilogy is a hard act to follow–so much so that Carey herself did not succeed with me in her Kushiel’s Scion trilogy, and I’m rather tepid on the Naamah trilogy, too. If I could, I would refrain from comparing anything to the first trilogy because nothing–not even Carey’s other work–measures up.

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  7. Josephine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 12:36:12

    @cbackson: I don’t mind self-doubt in a First Person narrator when its paired with confidence in another area, and competence in general. When the heroine consistently doubts and devalues herself on every front, it’s hard to want to spend time in her head. While character growth is generally a good thing, Vianne’s character arc was problematic in that I didn’t start liking her until the end of the book.

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  8. Janine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 12:56:28

    @Josephine: Let me second Jia’s welcome. I probably shouldn’t hijack this thread to the subject of Kushiel’s Dart but I can’t resist. I’m also reading the Carey right now (with my husband), although in my case it’s for the first time. I’m on p.118 and so far, I don’t get the fuss. I hope it gets better — a lot better — later on.

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  9. Estara
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 14:01:25

    This sounds interesting to me – I do recommend The Steelflower by her from Samhain as a very good high fantasy story – it is a one off that could easily have more sequels, and she used to allude to maybe writing one some time.j

    Maybe I’ll wait until both novels are out, though.

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  10. Brian
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 14:14:33

    @Estara: Steelflower really needs a sequel. Supposedly there was going to be Steelflower’s Song, which was in the process of being written, but I haven’t seen anything new about that for a while (maybe 3-4 years).

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  11. Josephine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 14:29:51

    @Estara: I read Steelflower a few years back. I recall liking it. Perhaps I’ll give it a reread.

    @Janine: Thanks. I hope you enjoy Dart, but if you’re that far in and not already charmed, you probably won’t be. And if you don’t like Dart you might enjoy Hedgewitch as Vianne, for all her faults, is a far less conceited narrator.

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  12. helen
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 14:52:20

    Just bought it, for the month of December it is apparently 2.99 (at least at BN)

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  13. Jane
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 14:53:19

    @helen Yes, Orbit confirmed that the $2.99 is a special deal through the month of December for US residents only. Regular price is 7.99

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  14. Estara
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 15:19:04

    @Brian: *nod* That’s how I remember it, too.

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  15. Jia
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 17:34:20

    @Janine: In my experience, Jacqueline Carey is one of those authors whose work either resonates with a reader or it doesn’t. I very rarely meet someone who falls in between. Her work tends to be pretty polarizing. Kushiel’s Dart was pretty controversial when it first came out back in… 2001?

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  16. Janine
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 17:45:25

    @Josephine & @Jia: I don’t think it’s the narrator’s personality that is the problem for me with Kushiel’s Dart. My problems have to do with the language, the pacing, the worldbuilding, and a pet peeve of mine — the pseudo-Hebrew names of the angels. It is obvious from the way the fake names are constructed that the author doesn’t have a good grasp on the Hebrew language. Unfortunately Carey is not the first author to stick the “-el” suffix on meaningless nonsense words. But I suppose I should save my complaints for the next “What Janine is Reading” or for a review, if I manage to read enough of the book to review it. I can believe that it’s a polarizing book.

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  17. AmyW
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 20:44:04

    @Faye – I’m with you on the names. “King Henri of Arquitaine” and “Princesse” stopped me dead.

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  18. DS
    Dec 02, 2011 @ 18:43:47

    @AmyW: I’m with you on Arquitaine. And maybe this is explained in the book but why is the character’s name di Rocancheil et Vintmorecy. The et sounds French but “di”?

    And I have no idea what farrats are but the archaic form of the word ferret is furet. The name supposedly is from the Latin word for little thief. Add oublietta and chivalier and I would be ready to pull my hair out.

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  19. Josephine
    Dec 02, 2011 @ 20:12:33

    @DS: My laziness is revealed! I looked up “donjon” and found it listed as an alternate archaic spelling so I assumed “farrat” was also. Either way, yes, it was a real problem from me. However, it was not as bad as the scattershot apostrophes so common in B-grade Sci-Fi (I loathe those).

    I had an easier time with the words she chose to italicize, but I am still curious about the rubric used to decide which words were italicized and which were not. I don’t believe the presence of that “di” is explained, either.

    @Janine: I fear you are in for much future annoyance. The pseudo-Hebrew gets worse before it gets better.

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  20. Nicole
    Dec 03, 2011 @ 13:22:43

    I’m currently reading this and I’m not really getting Carey out of it. I always think of Carey as much much darker than this is. It’s reminding me more of Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith (which I love). Anyways, I’m a quarter way in and really enjoying it.

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  21. Nikki
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 23:56:38

    I have to disagree with the grade on this. I would say more of a B/B- than anything else. If you read too many of her books closely, you get seriously annoyed with the overdose of angsty characters. Since it is all in the first person, the I am not beautiful, I hide myself, I push everyone away thing just gets annoying. However, she has this gift that some of her books just click with me. I am still waiting for a sequel to Steelflower though Vianne is an improvement.

    I do agree that reading it did not give closure. If we were just waiting a month then I would have been okay with the ending. However, between the ending and the excerpt from the next book, I am annoyed. So her grade leans more towards a B-. I think she could have ended it differently and began with the intrigue in the next book. That kind of cliffhanger is just annoying.

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