book review: to kill a kingdom

To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo
Feiwel and Friends, 384 pp.
Published March 6, 2018

Princess Lira is siren royalty and the most lethal of them all. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea. Until a twist of fate forces her to kill one of her own. To punish her daughter, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into the one thing they loathe most—a human. Robbed of her song, Lira has until the winter solstice to deliver Prince Elian’s heart to the Sea Queen or remain a human forever.

The ocean is the only place Prince Elian calls home, even though he is heir to the most powerful kingdom in the world. Hunting sirens is more than an unsavory hobby—it’s his calling. When he rescues a drowning woman in the ocean, she’s more than what she appears. She promises to help him find the key to destroying all of sirenkind for good—But can he trust her? And just how many deals will Elian have to barter to eliminate mankind’s greatest enemy?

A sure sign that a stand-alone novel has succeeded? Making this series-phobe want sequels! Alexandra Christo has crafted an engrossing world in To Kill a Kingdom as she paints an altogether more sinister rendition of the familiar tale about a lovelorn sea creature. Often, fantasy novels can fall into one of two categories: those whose world-building seems to take place as they progress, everything beyond the immediate narrative hazy and indistinct; and others that feel fully realized from the opening pages, even before details start emerge. While the entire dark history of sirens and their conflict with man unfolds gradually over its 350 pages, the mythology at To Kill a Kingdom's core hovers always hovers in the background, assured and complete.

Christo's prose finds beauty in the gruesome and the feral. Mermaids with jawless mouths full of sharks teeth, barbed nets for catching sirens, and the collection of innocent hearts beneath the sand all take on a macabre appeal. A tale with kingdoms hanging in the balance cannot lack for blood; Christo dispenses it gracefully, even as her main players shift from spilling it for pleasure to necessity. Said kingdoms above and below the waves come alive with inviting details that mask the cutthroat politics at their centers. To Kill a Kingdom is a novel that's easy to get lost in, with a rhythm that surges and retreats like the the tide.

Perspectives alternate between Lira and Elian. The siren princess is undoubtedly the more compelling of the two; a simpler reading might describe her character arc as the difference between good and evil, although I believe the core of it actually concerns subservience and independence. The curse of a human body may banish Lira from her aquatic home, but it also removes her from the tyranny of her mother's reign. Any moral developments are secondary to the journey of a girl discovering her voice, developing the strength to form and express her own opinions about the world. It's a tale of empowerment subtly wrought. That there are wide-ranging repercussions from the emergence of a strong young woman is, perhaps, a knowing nod towards readers who see themselves in Lira.

Elian, by comparison, falls a little flat. His own struggle between princely duty and the calling of a pirate's wayward life lacks the urgency of Lira's conflict. In all fairness he's certainly no slouch; considering the complexity at play in Lira's chapters, nearly anyone else would struggle to measure up.

One thing that particularly endeared me to this book is its shunning of the insta-love trope all too common in young adult fiction. The development of feelings between Lira and Elian happens gradually, fed by their growth and development as characters rather than an awkward need for romance no matter the context. Those put off by the prevalence of love triangles and instant infatuation will find their relationship a refreshing change of pace.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed To Kill a Kingdom. Christo's writing entranced me from her stellar opening sentence to the final word. YA fantasy has gained a triumph of a protagonist in the siren princess Lira. Filled as it is with pirate, mermaids, and magical artifacts, her personal journey should resonate with young readers beginning to discover who they are outside the boundaries of family and home.


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