book review: onyx & ivory

Onyx & Ivory by Mindee Arnett
Balzer + Bray, 512 pp.
Published May 15, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital ARC of this book from Balzer + Bray via Edelweiss+ for review purposes.

They call her Traitor Kate. It’s a title Kate Brighton inherited from her father after he tried to assassinate the high king years ago. Now Kate lives as an outcast, clinging to the fringes of society as a member of the Relay, the imperial courier service. Only those most skilled in riding and bow hunting ride for the Relay; and only the fastest survive, for when dark falls, the nightdrakes—deadly flightless dragons—come out to hunt. Fortunately, Kate has a secret edge: she is a wilder, born with magic that allows her to influence the minds of animals. But it’s this magic that she needs to keep hidden, as being a wilder is forbidden, punishable by death or exile. And it’s this magic that leads her to a caravan massacred by nightdrakes in broad daylight—the only survivor her childhood friend, her first love, the boy she swore to forget, the boy who broke her heart.

The high king’s second son, Corwin Tormane, never asked to lead. Even as he waits for the uror—the once-in-a-generation ritual to decide which of the king’s children will succeed him—he knows it’s always been his brother who will assume the throne. And that’s fine by him. He’d rather spend his days away from the palace, away from the sight of his father, broken with sickness from the attempt on his life. But the peacekeeping tour Corwin is on has given him too much time to reflect upon the night he saved his father’s life—the night he condemned the would-be killer to death and lost the girl he loved. Which is why he takes it on himself to investigate rumors of unrest in one of the remote city-states, only for his caravan to be attacked—and for him to be saved by Kate.

With their paths once more entangled, Kate and Corwin have to put the past behind them. The threat of drakes who attack in the daylight is only the beginning of a darker menace stirring in the kingdom—one whose origins have dire implications for Kate’s father’s attack upon the king and will thrust them into the middle of a brewing civil war in the kingdom of Rime.

Tropes are given a bad reputation; even I've complained at times of their prevalent use in the fantasy genre. But archetypes aren't really the underlying problem—it's how authors use them that can elevate or diminish a story. Onyx & Ivory does make use of some familiar tropes: the spunky heroine with a secret talent; the love interest who may or may not inherit a kingdom; a villain seeking total subjugation of the realm. However, Arnett finds success where others struggle, adding depth and intricacy to a long-familiar conflict.

Kate, the heroine with hidden talents, feels immensely relatable. Even as she gets drawn into an expanding conspiracy, a desire to protect her friends and learn the truth about her father's drastic and fatal choice remains her main driving force. A tough exterior forged after her father's execution belies an empathetic heart, her prickliness offset by a protective instinct that sometimes places her in danger's path. She's sometimes reminiscent of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games trilogy, albeit with less romantic brooding and more direct control over her fate.

Her perspective alternates with that of Corwin, second in line to the Rime throne and Kate's love interest before her father's treason. Oftentimes when a novel flits between points of view one stands out as the strongest or most interesting; in Onyx & Ivory, Corwin is just as compelling as Kate, exposing the reader to a part of the narrative wholly separate from her entanglement with the magical community. As the second-eldest son he possesses many of the qualities necessary in a good ruler, yet lacks the confidence to wield them consistently. Corwin's discovery of a political conspiracy develops his strengths as a prince just as Kate's involvement with other wilders and sympathetic magists uncovers her true potential too.

The world of Rime is just as fascinating as the characters that inhabit it. Arnett's take on dragons, the nightdrakes which prowl Rime's countryside after sunset, allows no room for the tame and loyal species seen elsewhere. With their poisoned bite and sinuous, flightless movement, the drakes function as pure adversaries. The magical talents that an oppressed portion of the citizenry, called wilders, possess also terrify. Even as we come to know wielders of that power personally, the devastating effects of its unbridled use chill when seen in the hands of the immoral.

The drakes, the wilders, and a mythical set of trials to determine the next king intertwine into a thrilling conflict both political and magical. Onyx & Ivory works well as the first entry in a new fantasy series. It introduces a fully-realized world populated with a diverse cast of characters, while resolving some smaller conflicts that set up a much larger feud on the horizon. While some of the story beats ring familiar, Arnett guides her readers through them with a richness of language and spirit that captures the imagination, promising many great adventures to come in the kingdom of Rime.


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