It's always risky for me to reread a book. As I grow older, I find that my tastes have changed, and even more so, I find myself becoming increasingly more critical of certain elements in books. I usually do not reread books, but recently, a friend asked me for YA high fantasy recommendations, and I remember enjoying this book when I first read it, 3 years ago. Thus, I decided to revisit this book, to see if it was as good as I remembered, because if I'm going to recommend it to my friend, I better make damn sure that it's a good book. It's my reputation on the line, after all.
This is one of the rare instances where the second reading turned out to be even better than the first. I am so happy to say it is even better than I remembered, even reading it from a critical standpoint, actually, particularly from a critical standpoint. This book is glorious. I do not give 1-ratings lightly, and neither do I give 5s unless I feel like a book overwhelmingly deserves it. In my humble opinion, all YA high fantasy should strive to be this good.
This book has it all, compelling, brilliantly detailed world building, a main character with weaknesses that evolve into strength, with beliefs and ideals that change along the way. The romance is light and utterly believable. There is politics, there is magic, there is court intrigue. There is friendship, there is backstabbing; the evolution of relationships, platonic and romantic, are credible. The reader is taken from the slums to the palace, from a small village to a bustling town. I truly enjoyed every moment of this book.
Summary: Zoe Ardelay is 23 years old, and her father has just died. She is prostate with grief at the death of her brilliant, loving father, the only family she has had since her mother died 11 years ago, since her father has been exiled from the royal court some 10 years ago. Zoe has barely had time to mourn before the king's right-hand man (Darien Serlast) shows up and gives her a most unexpected and unwelcome news: Zoe is to be the king's fifth wife.
I know this doesn't sound promising, I know it screams that Zoe is a special snowflake. I know you are rolling your eyes at the thought of yet another convenient parent's death. Please bear with me, and trust me when I say that this book is so much better than it initially seems.
Zoe is in shock, almost catatonic with grief from mourning. She follows Darien without comment, barely able to comprehend anything and barely capable of anything more than the simple act of existing. Once they get to the city, Zoe snaps out of it, and escapes. She is not an idiot, she has been in the city before, and she knows where to stay where she can be safe. She finds a place to settle near the banks of the Marisi river, and there, Zoe slowly awakens. She grows out of her grief, she comes to life again, and she slowly comes to realize that her father is not who he seems---as much as she loved him, he kept secret from her. One of those secrets is that she is the coru prime. The heir to her house.
Armed with this knowledge, Zoe knows she is empowered. As a prime, Zoe has more power than that of being a king's wife. We are there with her as she grows to realize the full extent of her power, to come into her inheritance and her destiny. As she navigates the treacherous waters of the royal court and the royal wives, and uncovers a mystery. Perhaps she might even find love with a man as strong-willed as she is.
What I Loved About This Book
The Setting: Wonderfully imaginative. Simple, but absolutely compelling. You know how numerology plays a large role in some countries, like the Asian countries. Certain numbers are good luck, certain numbers are avoided for their negative association...the world of this book works similarly, only it is influenced by the number 5. More on this in a bit. Five: keep that number in mind.
All the elements in this book (pun intended) mesh together so well. This is set in an alternate universe, with light elements of magic. Not everyone possesses magic, only a select few, the heirs (primes) of each of the five major houses within the country of Welce. There are five major families which have the majority of power and influence within the royal circle, without being directly royal themselves. They are the Ardelays, the Dochenzas, the Serlasts, the Frothens, the Lalindars. Zoe herself is the result of an union between two of the major houses, the Ardelays and the Lalindars.
This world is ruled by the belief of five elements in the body and soul, which corresponds to each of the five families, which corresponds to five seasons of the year. I absolutely loved this and how well-created this system turned out to be. There is no glossary, but the world is so well-explained that one is not needed, and for the curious, there is a chart and a brief explanation of the elements and the year located at the very beginning and at the end of the book. Simply put, there are five elements (and blessings), coru (water/blood), elay (air/soul), hunti (wood/bone), sweela (fire/mind), torz (earth/flesh). This elemental blessing system is incorporated into every aspect of the story, and it is so incredibly well crafted. From the birth of a child and the selection of blessings, to the explanation of traditions within the country, to someone's personality, to the incorporation of magical elements, this world is absolutely consistent. My mind boggles.
The year itself is still composed of 365 days, but organized differently, again---according to the five elements. There are five seasons (quintiles), each lasting for eight ninedays, with one Changeday (a holiday, and a major celebration) at the end/beginning of each quintile.
The setting itself is lovely and well-described, from the slums by the river to the spectacular palace itself. I never tire of the world in which this book is set.
The Characters: Zoe Ardelay is awesome. She is not perfect, there were moments I lost patience with her, but altogether, she proved to be a most satisfactory heroine. Zoe is weak at the beginning, although that is somewhat understandable due to her grief. She also has a tendency to run away when times get rough, due to a lack of patience with others, not because she is an ostrich with her head stuck in the sand. Zoe is brave, she is not perfect, she doesn't understand the extent of her power sometimes, she loses control of her own power at others, but she is never malicious, never evil. I loved seeing Zoe come into the power which she has inherited, and I enjoyed seeing her learn to play her part as a prime, as a court woman, as a woman with power and strength and wealth in her own right.
I grieved with her when her beloved, intelligent, loving father died. I felt for her when she came to realize--like most of us eventually do, that parents are not perfect. They are human, they are flawed. The more Zoe comes to know her father and his deeds, the angrier she becomes, as she feels betrayed...but her feelings are so understandable and relatable. Zoe is reasonable, rational, intelligent. And for that, I loved her.
“If he was alive, I might have abandoned him at this point, tired of one too many betrayals,” she said. “But I do not have that luxury now. I must understand him and accept him, or lose even my memories of him. And I am not prepared to do that—not now. Not yet. Perhaps not ever.”
The other characters in the book are equally well-crafted. Great care is given to all the side characters, and I enjoyed them all. Nobody is purely evil. Someone we start out distrusting, disliking, someone who is initially standoffish, cold, distant, may prove to become a friend along the line. There is a great attention to detail in everything in this novel, from the setting to the characters, no matter how small, and I truly appreciate that.
The Plot: Always kept me engrossed. The story moves around a lot, and it gives us an opportunity to learn more with every setting we come across. We come to know new characters, new things, new intrigues, new mysteries with every setting. It is always a learning experience, and a pleasant one. The characters themselves comtribute so much to the plot that they become part of it. This book always keeps me entertained.
I absolutely loved the court intrigue. I do not enjoy an overwhelmingly political book, and this book has just enough politics and power play to keep me interested without losing my attention. I particularly enjoyed the royal court with the king's four wives. This world is not polygamous, only the king is allowed to have more than one wife, and as always, with more than one woman in power, there is always an interesting power play (and cattiness) to keep me entertained. There's light intrigue, a mystery that does not overwhelm Zoe's story, and throughout all of it, Zoe always has a role in which to participate.
The Romance: Light, enjoyable, and completely believable. For much of the book, Zoe doesn't even think about romance, about having her own family, about love, about marriage. FUCK YEAH.
Sorry, I just get a wee bit excited when a female character is rational and consistent and content in her own self without the need or reliance on a man like that.
Zoe's love story is so gradual, one hardly notices it. It starts with distrust, grows into a reluctant alliance, then friendship. Love eventually comes into the equation, but it is not the centerpoint of the book by any means.
Zoe and her love interest are so good together. They are both such strong personalities, and I loved them for it. They are both stubborn, unyielding in their own way, and through their contrast, they find their similarity. Opposites attract.
Coru woman, who could not be contained. Hunti man, who could not be moved.
There is no mind games. There is no petty jealousy. There is friendship, alliance, trust, love. They find strength in each other, in their opposing personalities.
“There is nothing but heartache for a coru woman and a hunti man,” she said, deliberately contrary. “He cannot control her and she cannot change him.”
“He never fails her and she always moves him,” [he] corrected. “She can trust his strength, and he can be lifted by her joy.”
Altogether, a fantastic book. Highly recommended for all ages. This is classified as YA, but the characters are adult, however, there is nothing in this book that would offend anyone older than 12. I will enjoy this book when I reread it at 90.