REVIEW: The Shattered Court by MJ Scott
Dear MJ Scott,
Can I just take a moment to sigh over that beautiful cover? You have definitely been blessed by the cover gods.
I have your Half-Light City series on the TBR of Doom but finding time to read four books is even more daunting. So, I was pleased to see you had a new fantasy series coming out and I could get in on the ground floor so to speak.
Lady Sophia Kendall is about to turn 21. She is a lady in waiting to Princess Eloisa of the Anglions. On their 21st birthday, Anglion women may or may not manifest magic. A Royal Witch (which is what Sophie would be if she manifests because she is in direct line to the throne, albeit quite a way down said line), has the potential to be a Very Big Deal and Sophie is the only one turning 21 in the near future. If she has power, depending on how much of it she displays, her marriage prospects go up. The King will want to tie her more closely to the kingdom and keep her power for the court as much as possible – this will mean marriage with a powerful man whom the king favours. If she does not manifest any power, then her marriage prospects are lower. Her lot, inevitably, is marriage and she is well aware she won’t get a choice about it. She hopes she is wed to a man with whom she can be friends and who will allow her some personal freedom, but hope is all she can do.
Sophie has mixed feelings about whether or not she will be a Royal Witch. She has studied for endless hours for the eventuality but has found that study as frustrating as it was boring: They don’t really tell her anything about what happens if she is a witch. Much of the instruction is about the early parts of the rituals involved but earth magic is Secret Womens Business and if one is not in the club, one doesn’t need to know. It becomes clear early on that the Temple of the Goddess, and the Domina Skey, who is in charge of the temple, keep certain knowledge close to their chests for their own purposes. Sophie begins to see political machinations everywhere.
She and Eloisa are quite friendly; Eloisa has taken Sophie under her wing and has planned an elaborate Ais-Seann (21st birthday) gift for her.
Lord Cameron Mackenzie is the third son of the Erl of Inglewood, a battle mage and a member of the Red Guard, sworn to protect the royal family. Cameron is assigned to Eloisa’s personal service. Cameron’s father is pushing for Cam to make a play for the role of Consort but he knows that will never happen and he has no serious ambition in that regard. That doesn’t stop him from enjoying a “friends-with-benefits” type relationship with Eloisa, very quietly.
Eloisa is also a Royal Witch. She is the most powerful of the court but, in general, very powerful witches are rare and mostly have not been seen for the past 100 years. She has power with Earth Magic and some Far-Seeing abilities. She is also a woman of intellect and political savvy.
Eloisa assigns Cameron the duty of escorting Sophie to Portholme, the port city near the palace, to pick up some herbs and Sophie’s Ais-Seann gift. Cam is reluctant – his duty is to the princess after all, but Eloisa is adamant. While Cameron and Sophie are in Portholme, large explosions tear portions of the palace apart. Obviously there has been an attack of some sort on the palace – it is clear from the number of explosions that is not an accident. While fairly far down the line of inheritance, Sophie is of the line direct and he has been charged with her protection. To see to her safety, he takes her through a “portal” (a kind of teleportation device which runs on magic and which are keyed to certain specific locations. That is to say, one portal does not go anywhere. There is a list of available addresses in each portal) and then another and then another in case they are pursued. Until they know what has happened, Cameron will not take Sophie back to Kingswell and the palace.
Over the course of the next few days, Sophie and Cameron begin to get to know one another and appreciate the other’s strength and honesty.
The unexpected journey also has the effect of Sophie turning 21 in less than ideal circumstances. The original plan was for her to go to the temple early on her birthday and take part in an Ais-Seann ritual with the Domina where her power (if she has any) would be manifested and she would be “dedicated to the Goddess”. But she is nowhere near the temple or the Domina and when she awakes, she is overwhelmed by her newfound power. She can see ley lines, brightly shining and calling to her. Unable to stop herself and despite Cam’s best efforts, Sophie heads to the ley line and basically gets “drunk” on the power. When Cameron tries to pull her out, he is caught up in it too and… things happen which have very big consequences for the both of them.
Not much later, Cameron is advised that the King has been killed and the injured Eloisa is now the Queen-to-be. Cameron’s father died in the attack also and so have many many others of the court. He and Sophie are ordered to return to court and do so.
When the Domina attempts the ritual dedication of Sophie to the Goddess, things go awry. It turns out “dedication” is a euphemism for “binding” and for Sophie, it does not take. There are not many things which could cause this problem and Eloisa quickly diagnoses the cause – resulting in a betrothal and an increase in the tensions of the court. (Can I also just say that the wedding vows you wrote for the Anglion ceremony were just lovely.)
The attack is still being investigated but it is strongly suspected that neighbouring Illvya is behind it. The countries have long been enemies. Illvya has looser rules for magic and they practice the forbidden Water Magic (which calls demons). Anglions are restricted to Air, Blood or Earth Magic and women are restricted further to Earth Magic only. Sophie frets against these constraints and the obvious secrets which are being kept from her.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Sophie is a very powerful witch indeed. This and her status as an “unbound witch” as well as the jumps she has taken up the line of inheritance (due to the deaths of so many at court) mean she is now a rallying point for discord and a threat to the current Anglion regime – one which is reeling from the recent attack.
Through all this, Sophie’s and Cameron’s connection grows. Their magic is strongly attracted but I think it is more than that which calls them together and by the end of the book they are well on the way to their HEA. This is the first in a series of what I suspect will be four books (there being four arts). While the romance is left at a happy and promising place, the risk to Sophie and through her, Cameron, is great and there are many questions left to be answered and many more secrets to be revealed.
I’m used to fantasy characters having unusual names. In The Shattered Court, everyone has the kind of names one might expect to see in an historical novel (or perhaps even a contemporary). It had the advantage of not causing me to struggle with often unpronounceable fantasy names and their myriad apostrophes, but it was also something which stopped me from entering fully into the fantasy aspect of the story. It turns out those weird names are constant visual cues to me that I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Anglion, surrounded by salt water (which protects against demons) is, I think, an AU England (and where Cameron hails from is akin to Scotland – there is even a kilt on the cover) and Illvya is an AU France. I had a fair idea of the geography of the world of the story through that.
First books in a fantasy series have a lot of set up to do. They have to introduce the world, the mythology and the characters and hook the reader to the story. A fantasy-romance has the extra task of building a romantic relationship as well. In many ways, The Shattered Court felt like what it is, the first quarter (or third?) of a much longer story. While the ending left things at a satisfying (and intriguing) place, I felt like I’d only just gotten to the meat of the tale.
In my pure fantasy phase, I read The Magician by Raymond E. Feist. I had to have two goes at it because the beginning was a hard slog for me. I thought it was sooo boring. Once I’d got past that point, on my second try, I found myself engrossed in a wonderful story and it remains one of my favourite fantasy books (although Silverthorn is my personal favourite because it’s more romantic). The Shattered Court isn’t anywhere near as hard to get into as I found The Magician to be but that book was over 800 pages long and this one is just under 300. So, while it was an easier start, the big payoff wasn’t quite there. Yet.
I felt some of the story could have been tightened up a little to get to more of the action more quickly but as I don’t know what’s in store in the next books, that may well not be a fair criticism. There may be a reason for the pacing and, as it often the case in fantasy, events which have little significance at the start came become pivotal as more information is revealed.
There were times in the read I felt the plot was episodic and sometimes lacked cohesion. My impression was that there was so much to be done and it didn’t fit easily into the page count. But I could be wrong on that. I’d have liked more depth in some aspects of the story to anchor me more solidly to the world you’ve built.
I liked the relationship between Cameron and Sophie. I liked that they determined to be honest with one another and that they don’t let misunderstanding linger. Because there were so many other things the book had to do, of course there was something of a limit to how much page time the romance could take, but I felt the balance was about right in terms of the mix between romance and the political/magic plot. I think the complicated relationship between Cameron, Sophie and Eloisa is intriguing and, for a romance, unusual.
What I read, I liked but did not love. Yet. I may well look back, with the benefit of reading the later books in the series (which I definitely plan to read) and have a greater appreciation for The Shattered Court but for me right now, it’s a C+. Well, on second thought, maybe a B-.