The Queen of Blood is the first book in a series of epic fantasy novels by Sarah Beth Durst. Daliena, our protagonist, lives in a world shared by humans, creatures, and nature spirits (imagine scary pixies ranging in size from candle flame to “earth kraken”). The land is ruled by humans, specifically women (the only humans who have the ability to keep the wild spirits in check, known as the “affinity”), and more specifically, the Queen, who stands between peaceful co-existence and carnage at the hands (teeth?) of the spirits. Nature spirits make the trees grow, fire burn, air blow, and water flow. These are not dainty, treacly sprites. The spirits are wild, malicious toward humans (but kept in check by the Queen) and full of chaotic energy. The woman selected to be queen must have a strong enough affinity (honed through years of training) to fully control and manipulate the spirits so they are both docile and, when needed, slave labor—in the manner of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest. As a child, Daliena’s arboreal village was destroyed, and her friends and neighbors murdered, by rogue spirits. When a spirit attacks her little sister, Daliena stops it, realizing for the first time that she has the affinity (although, not as much as she would like), setting her on the path to train at the prestigious Academy (think Hogwarts meets Hunger Games arena) to become an heir to the queen. (Fair warning: Minor spoilers and hints abound in the following discussion.)
CS Peterson: As an epic fantasy, Durst’s book has all the requisite tropes and variations that readers of the genre crave. One of the things I enjoyed about the book was her playful use of tropes and trope reversals. A brief list of well-used tropes include: a Hogwarts-type school; elites in gowns; rough, honest woodsmen who wear green; rough, honest woodsmen who watch young women and pick the most promising as their padawans; a Hunger Games-type arena to pick the winners; a tyrant who will do anything to stay in power; a hero who just wants to stay home and live in the swamp; and vicious, can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em fairies.
Amanda Boldenow: A few of my favorite reversals include the centering of total girl power; all the heavy lifting falls to the ladies, because men don’t have the affinity (although they can help by wielding a sword with skill). The protagonist isn’t an orphan, meaning consideration for her family factors in to all of her choices; desire to protect them and live up to their expectations fuel her journey toward becoming an heir.
CSP: And there’s casual sex—so it’s in the Adult Epic Fantasy section and not the YA section.
AB: I loved that the book had unshamed sex. Slut-shaming is a cultural concept I’d love to see die that often crops up in books. Daliena is old enough to make her own choices, she does it, end of story. It set a nice tone for the positive culture around girls and sexuality in Renthia.
CSP: I do appreciate that too. But in terms of feeling like an nonessential scene I have to say that there were a couple of times I found myself disoriented by leaps in time. At that point in the story I still had her in school-girl mode. There must have been a first time for Daliena. Seeing her discovery of love, sex, etc. would have been orienting in terms of understanding her place in time. Then the scene would have felt more integral instead of pasted on as an afterthought.
AB: There was a lot of pummeling through time to get us to her late teens. There could be a whole other book that was just Daleina’s misadventures in spirit school. I think the mention of casual sex brings us back to the trope reversals that are peppered throughout the book—Daliena picks the boy and invites him to her bed, then essentially tells him straight that the sex has no strings attached, and sends him packing in the morning.
CSP: At first the tropes had a Terry Pratchett-esque, tongue-in-cheek feel, but as the story developed I got the sense that there was very little tongue in the cheek. It felt earnest. As if, in appropriately arranging tropes and flipping some particularly bothersome ones, the author was making a deeply sincere attempt to stake a woman’s flag firmly in the male fantasy section of the book store. Something along the lines of Johansen’s Tearling series. It had a preliminary feel. I want to read the second book, as Queen of Blood was marketed as the prequel to the book Durst really wanted to write.
AB: I’m also looking forward to the next book in the series. Before we jump ahead, let’s talk more about the star student at the Academy, Merecot. She’s definitely being set up as the evil queen rival, and I wonder if we’ll see her in the next book. I liked her a lot in the scenes at the Academy. She was obnoxiously smug but she was willing to help others because she was so full of confidence that she didn’t see them as a threat. It’s nice to see a confident girl! Daleina could have taken a lesson from Merecot on that front. I don’t love that the trope of super-confident-gifted girl is going to end up the evil one (Voldemort was super talented and sure of himself), while the bumbling, humble girl rises to the top through her graces and force of will. I’m not opposed to the humble person rising, I just find it a trope-trap.
CSP: Merecot does become the rival queen, though we never see her ascendency. I’ll bet she shows up as Daleina’s arch enemy. Merecot was only nice to Daleina because she found her useful and Daleina didn’t even know she was being used. Fara, the current queen, spouts the classic evildoer catch phrases: “I sacrifice a few for the benefit of the many,” and believes that only idealists see good and evil. She feels superior because she sees “choices that that aren’t right or wrong, but simply better or worse.” Fara is easier to deceive because she justifies choices as the difficult choices a ruler must make. Merecot I don’t think will have to justify anything morally. She feels the rules of morality don’t apply to her because she is super talented.
AB: Merecot is like a spirit that way, beyond a binary morality. Fara’s feelings of being threatened started long before Merecot, though, as she is the hand behind the destruction of Daleina’s village as a child. I’m sure Merecot gaining her throne and vying for territory didn’t help Fara’s anxiety over inadequacy, pushing her to more destruction and sacrifice. Merecot and Champion Piriandra both remind me of Mitchum Huntzburger telling Rory Gilmore that she doesn’t have what it takes to cut it in the newspaper business, especially when Piriandra tells Daleina, “Your technique is solid. It is obvious that you are dedicated and work hard. But if you want a little friendly advice ... that is your problem. You work hard at things that should come naturally to a candidate.”
CSP: Totally! “Let me give you a little advice kid …”
AB: It’s a nice reminder that you can’t put total stock in how others assess your talents. As a child, Daleina disobeyed her parents to go to the hedgewitch’s prophecy ceremony, because she “would not be kept from her fate. She’d run towards it, arms open, and kick fate in the face.” Then the hedgewitch is attacked by a wood spirit, and Daleina’s mother delivers her true prophecy: “Wood will not take you ... nor fire, nor ice, nor water, nor earth, nor air. You will live, my child. You must live.”
CSP: So she is the chosen one! But chosen by whom? By what criteria? The chosen ones in the school are ranked according to their ability to control spirits. But the spirits choose the queen. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps the spirits were choosing according to the criteria of their self interests—which human their top-ranked spirit had the most affinity in manipulating? So if Daleina is the chosen one, perhaps there is a different criterion involved—she is the one who will bring balance to the Force … I mean forest. Or perhaps I’m digging too deep here?
AB: I’m not sure, as, without wanting to be too spoilery, Daleina’s ascendency is a little, ahem, unconventional. The spirits have little to no free will, existing at the mercy of commands of stronger spirits or human women with the affinity. Their own free will has only two drives: destroy and create in an endless loop. The balance is getting them not to destroy things too quickly. In this way they mirror perfectly the natural order they are meant to represent, as our own environment constantly gives life and takes it away in equal measure. How much of the natural order is disrupted by the humans’ interference in the book? In our world, we screw up the natural order constantly and are working to tip the balance to where destruction (super storms, wild climate swings, etc.) are the norm rather than the exception; even as we seek to control the environment more and more, we are actually losing. The same happened to Queen Fara as she tried to control nature/the spirits for her own glory. She grows desperate, which, well, never goes swimmingly for anyone.
CSP: The idea that humans as somehow separate from, or adversaries of, nature feels artificial to me. Humans are part of nature. The trope of their relationship in Queen of Blood is that of Prospero in The Tempest. The spirits are bound to obey whether they want to or not. They are slaves to the magician. And the spirits are only amoral sometimes. The Owl spirit has an agenda and treats humans as the means to her ends. One might even say that the Owl spirit has an “affinity” for humans.
AB: Fara thought she was in total control, but the Owl spirit had been grooming and manipulating her to be a pawn the whole time, feeding her ego.
CSP: There is a parallel here with the relationships between Merecot and Daleina. Daleina thinks she is doing the best she can, working hard, grateful for Merecot’s help now and then. Daleina doesn’t even know that Merecot is using her.
AB: I’m not sure Merecot realizes she’s using Daleina, as she doesn’t see wrong and right in the same way Daleina or the headmistress does. The spirits also have no morality: “They’d never understand that what they’d done was wrong, and destroying the spirits would only hurt the forest and leave more people homeless.” There is no black/white conception of right and wrong that guides people. Daleina is elevated to candidate and heir because of her morality—her sense of right and wrong wins her a champion despite the weaknesses in her affinity for controlling spirits.
CSP: There is one “prime directive” mandate for the Queen: “Do no harm.” That’s the one that Ven keeps throwing back at Fara when she’s justifying all her glory grubbing with a theory of moral relativism. Daleina has success with redirecting spiritual energies rather than ordering them around like slaves. But then we hear that making friends with the spirits never ends well and we see that with the Owl spirit.
AB: The Owl spirit (Bannon) was like a parasite in the throne room, worming her way into Fara’s ear. Champion Ven had it right when he “hoped it wasn’t a symptom of rot hidden beneath the veneer of beauty. Rot beneath the veneer.”
CSP: A classic trope if ever there was one. Fara was certainly being controlled by the Owl spirit, and not the other way around.
AB: Their relationship reminds me of the line, “Side by side, they looked out at the pristine forest, above the wreckage.” Either the spirits were being kept from fulfilling their desires by humans (a form of harm), or the humans were being harmed by the destruction of the spirits. Both saw the other as a source of wreckage, and indifferent to their pain. Humans often write about the coldness of nature in light of human tragedy—how the natural world just goes on as if nothing happened. Humans universally have trouble grappling with that.
CSP: In the world-building of fantasy, conceptions of nature so often fall into one of two simplistic categories. First is the realm of a malevolent spirits: malicious yoki in Japan, Caliban and Ariel, the Midsummer Night’s Dream fairies, Krampus, etc.. Second is the restorative, romantic pastoral: Beethoven's pastoral symphony, John Muir, Walt Whitman, The Secret Garden. In Rocky Mountain National Park there is a sign at the head of a hiking trail reminding trekkers that “The Mountains Don’t Care.” Why is this so hard for humans to wrap their heads around? Why do people demand that nature be either a nemesis or a fairy godmother? In Queen of Blood, I am puzzled by how the spirits benefit from human control. I know it is stated that they crave the balance that humans offer, but that doesn’t actually seem to be true in the case of Owl spirit. If the humans were gone, what exactly would happen here? The forest would be wild? There are places in the kingdom where the forest is wild. Humans don’t go there. But the spirits seem to be getting along there just fine.
AB: Whatever would happen, it wouldn’t be a happy ending for us! Another trope I’m ok with: Daleina’s skills can’t be measured by the same ruler used on the other candidates. Saying “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” applies to Daleina.
CSP: Also, there’s this thing … Daleina seems to actually feel what is happening to the wood a couple of times. She notices the earth kraken when none of the other girls do. I wonder if we'll find out she has a tree spirit for a great-grandma or something?
AB: I’d love that! A true connection to nature, literally in her DNA. Maybe in book two?
The second book in The Queens of Renthia series, The Reluctant Queen, comes out in July. Come back then to read our thoughts on the continuation of Daleina’s story, and to see where Durst takes us on her female-centric epic fantasy.