book review: the queen's rising

The Queen's Rising by Rebecca Ross
HarperTeen, 464 pp.
Published February 6, 2018

When her seventeenth summer solstice arrives, Brienna desires only two things: to master her passion and to be chosen by a patron.

Growing up in the southern Kingdom of Valenia at the renowned Magnalia House should have prepared her for such a life. While some are born with an innate talent for one of the five passions—art, music, dramatics, wit, and knowledge—Brienna struggled to find hers until she belatedly chose to study knowledge. However, despite all her preparations, Brienna’s greatest fear comes true—the solstice does not go according to plan and she is left without a patron.

Months later, her life takes an unexpected turn when a disgraced lord offers her patronage. Suspicious of his intent, and with no other choices, she accepts. But there is much more to his story, and Brienna soon discovers that he has sought her out for his own vengeful gain. For there is a dangerous plot being planned to overthrow the king of Maevana—the archrival kingdom of Valenia—and restore the rightful queen, and her magic, to the northern throne. And others are involved—some closer to Brienna than she realizes.

With war brewing between the two lands, Brienna must choose whose side she will remain loyal to—passion or blood. Because a queen is destined to rise and lead the battle to reclaim the crown. The ultimate decision Brienna must determine is: Who will be that queen?

The Queen's Rising delivered everything I expect and enjoy in a classic fantasy tale: a richly realized world, an comprehensible and impactful system of magic, well-developed characters, and lush writing to bring each component to life. Where it distinguishes itself from other genre offerings is in its narrative focus: rather than honing in on a character predestined as ruler or savior, its gaze falls on a young woman instrumental to the victory of the "chosen one". Through Brienna, Ross proves that even characters seemingly on the perimeter of a conflict can still drive a compelling story. It would have been so easy to cast her as a side character, to center instead on an exiled princess and the rediscovery of an extinct magic. This simple shift in view reinvigorates a familiar journey and makes the world in which it takes place feel all the more real.

Raised by her maternal grandfather, Brienna knows little about either of her parents; she doesn't even have a name to associate with her father, although she is aware that he comes from the neighboring country of Maevana. There the women train with sword and axe, marking their faces with blue paint as a sign of courage. In Valenia, the homeland of her mother and where Brienna was raised, society follows a far more sedate path, favoring silk gowns and fine arts as the purview of women. These two contradictory cultures fuel curiosity and conflict; ultimately, it is a drive to reconcile them within herself that thrusts Brienna into the heart of a plot to reclaim Maevana's throne.

When the reader first meets Brienna she's a somewhat aimless girl, although far from lazy. She is the antithesis of the "chosen one" archetype so commonly employed in fantasy: proficient but not supernaturally gifted, she must work hard to earn her successes. That doesn't make her incompetent, though. Brienna's efforts see their just rewards, dispensed through an altogether more relatable process than divine intervention.

Scholars, warriors, and friends make up a varied supporting cast. Cartier, Brienna's instructor and a passion of knowledge, was easily my favorite with his bookish tendencies and a little spark of mystery. While not the primary focus, several female friendships filled with kindness, respect, and even twinges of jealousy also develop over the course of the novel. One subplot running throughout The Queen's Rising concerns the importance of blood relations versus an adoptive/self-selected family. Through her patron Brienna gains a father and brother, yet her loyalty is not assured. The reality of what she has gained wars with the fantasy of what might await her in Maevana, the mystery of a paternal lineage never disclosed. Both antagonists, who make a proper entrance to the story after its halfway mark, may carry a whiff of villainous stereotypes but not in a way that diminishes tension in the final act.

To this American's eyes, Maevana and Valenia felt almost like fantasy equivalents of Scotland and England, respectively. (A contrast between blue battle paint and perfect manners seemed particularly on point!) The matriarchal system of magic and royal succession in the former is a welcome counterpoint to the genre. Rather than creating a monumental shift in the power dynamics between men and women, it causes a more subtle tip of the scales for more nuanced and, ultimately, more interesting results.

Although more novels are now forthcoming, The Queen's Rising was originally conceived as a stand-alone, meaning that cultures, characters, and mythologies are universally well-developed. Admirers of traditional fantasy tales will delight in the setting and central conflict, while those that only dabble in the genre should appreciate the subtle changes that give Brienna's story a suitably modern slant. (Those looking for a little romance won't be disappointed either!) With an ending that feels earned rather than given, The Queen's Rising manages to take all the delightful parts of fantasy and present them in a beautiful new package.


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