This is one of the most original fantasies I’ve ever read. The world is beautiful, unique, deadly, and the characters aren’t your typical cast of heroes. This was such a gripping read; I finished it in one sitting and was very satisfied.
The Reluctant Queen picks up after the events of the first book, The Queen of Blood, with Daleina sitting on the throne. But she’s sick, and she doesn’t have much longer to live. If her champions don’t find someone to replace her, the spirits will run rampant and destroy everyone. Enter Naelin, a simple woods woman with two children and lots of raw, untapped power. Being Queen is the last thing she wants, but it seems that she doesn’t have much of a choice when champion Ven comes knocking. She and her children are whisked away to the capitol, where Naelin has no choice but to shoulder the responsibility of becoming heir. And to add to all the mess, the mountain country of Semo is becoming increasingly aggressive, and soon they might have an invasion coming.
So tons of stuff is happening, but I’m going to take a second to appreciate the setting. In Aratay, everything has a spirit, from the trees to the wind, pond, fire, ice, stone, etc. By nature, the spirits like chaos and disorder, but with the power of the Queen they are kept at bay and are mostly harmless, although accidents do happen. The world is very nature-oriented; the people live in these huge trees, carving out homes from the trunk, with bridges suspended in between to serve for travel. I would love to live in this world. (Minus the bloodthirsty spirits, but I could work around that). The setting reminds me of Princess Mononoke, a Hayao Miyazaki film, with some Ori and the Blind Forest vibes. It’s so unique and gorgeous, with a streak of danger, and I loved getting lost in this world.
The characters were also very strong. It’s not every book where the heroine is a middle-aged mother of two. Naelin doesn’t fit the chosen one persona either, being queen is literally the last thing she wants, but it’s thrust upon her. She meets it understandably, with frustration, anger, and resistance, but in the end she accepts it and her power. I was put off at first, by her stubborn refusal to use her power (like who doesn’t want cool abilities?), but eventually, I admired her strength and determination. Her kindness and moral compass was also very much appreciated. Naelin was very refreshing to read about, and I like her immensely.
Overall, I really like this book and series. I think it’s original, unique, and very memorable. If you like fantasy, nature spirits with a mean streak, and strong heroines, pick this one up! More people should read this.