The Queen of Sorrow, the conclusion of Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queens of Renthia trilogy, expands the amazing fantasy world of Renthia and answers a host of questions about the rules that govern it.
Throughout the series, Durst’s focus has been on the creative force with a specifically female frame of reference. Renthia is a world created by a female deity, and the characters of the story live in a true matriarchy, one that includes and respects men as a vital element but is not built in reaction to, or anger at, a patriarchy. This distinction is remarkable. When you are born and raised as a fish, it is difficult to describe a life on land with out constantly referring to the lack of water. There are multitudes of speculative works that imagine a world run by women, but usually, as in Y: The Last Man, it is a world where men are absent and the rule of women is drawn in reaction to the patriarchy.
This is not the pattern in the world Durst has created. In Renthia, men and women live together, but only women have ever had the power to connect with and direct the wild natural spirits that live in the land. The spirits are elemental, natural; their powers are both creative and destructive. Without a queen’s control they will run amok and the world will devolve into primordial chaos. There is no room for a battle of the sexes when life depends on the power of a woman to hold chaos at bay. Survival is an ever-present imperative, and men do all they can to keep the right women in power.
There is only one creative deity, the Great Mother, who has been alluded to in the first two books. However, she is always distant, absent. She is a god who got things started, then left, and in this final book of the series we learn why.
Each of the first two books in Durst’s trilogy introduced a woman who would become queen of Renthia. In The Queen of Blood, we met Daleina, who replaces a corrupt queen. Daleina’s coronation becomes a blood bath as the spirits challenge the power of human control. In The Reluctant Queen we met Naelin, a woman who had denied her power, thinking that by repressing it she could choose a quiet life.
The nemesis of both queens is Mercot, a woman consumed with ambition and hubris. In the first book, she and Daleina meet in the special school for gifted youngsters and immediately become rivals in the mold of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. When Mercot gets expelled for cheating, she leaves with a flip of her hair and a roll of her eyes, only to reappear in book two as the ruler of the next kingdom over. Intent on taking over Renthia, she attempts to kill Daleina.
In The Queen of Sorrow, Mercot tries once again to take Renthia, this time by sending spirits to kidnap, and possibly kill, Naelin’s children. The emotional connection Naelin has with the spirits of Renthia is so profound that the entire kingdom is overtaken by the storm of their queen’s grief and fury when she believes her children dead.
At first we believe Mercot is ambitious to the point of being a sociopath. Her choices would seem to give Machiavelli pause. Or so it appears until we enter her kingdom and understand her true situation. The kingdom Mercot rules has an extra helping of spirits. The mountainous land heaves and boils. Mercot is hubristic, but she is also the queen with the most raw talent. In her kingdom of landslides and earthquakes even she can barely hold back the chaos.
Why are there untamed lands? Up to this point in the stories I had assumed that the spirits in the untamed lands were getting along just fine, but it turns out they are not. In answering these questions, Durst expands her world to a universe complete with a fully realized, compelling, and terrifying cosmology. There are more lands, more queens. More importantly, there is a reason why the spirits run amok without a queen—and there is a reason why women are the only ones who can bring those spirits under control. This expanded cosmos, together with Naelin’s deeply emotional journey as she deals with the disappearance of her children, makes The Queen of Sorrow by far the most compelling novel of the series.
In the end, I found myself wishing that some of the cosmic truths revealed in the final book had been given more play earlier in the series. But perhaps that was not possible, given the author’s ambitious vision for the series. Right from the start, The Queen of Blood challenged innumerable fantasy tropes, playing with expectations of female characters, chosen ones, female self-doubt, and posing the question of whether ambitious, confident women could be good rulers, or rulers at all. The Reluctant Queen took these questions further and continued to subvert tropes and expectations. With so much going on in the first two novels, could there have been room for this deep and richly imagined cosmos as well? I’m not sure. But now that I know the truth, I want to go back and re-read the other novels. Durst has truly created a whole new world.
Read Similar Stories
Sarah Pinsker’s debut novel sings the joys of connection and the discontent of sticking it to the Man.
Don’t miss this latest release from Undertow Publications: All The Things We Never See by Michael Kelly. It will have you itching to create, which will be a good use of the time you used to spend sleeping.
Ted Chiang’s second collection of award-winning stories, reviewed.
A Review of the excellent Sing Your Sadness Deep by British Fantasy Award winner and Shirley Jackson Award finalist Laura Mauro.
Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X radically disassembles womanhood into its surreal parts.
Cadwell Turnbull’s debut novel cannily explores cycles of violence through an alien occupation of the Virgin Islands.
In her Pulitzer Prize nominated collection, Get in Trouble, Link delves into the delights and perils of being granted your heart’s desire.
LeVar Burton carries on the bright legacy of his show Reading Rainbow with his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads. We selected a few of our favorite speculative fiction stories from his collection of episodes to recommend.
If you are interested in the themes of mirrors and mothers, bodies as machines, daughters and madness, flowers and blood, then Georgina Bruce’s debut story collection is for you!
Fiction Unbound explores the fresh voices and exciting ideas that are the novellas nominated by SWFA members for the Nebula Awards. No predictions.
Headley’s retelling of Beowulf through the eyes of Grendel’s mother and Hrothgar’s wife takes on epic heroes, American veterans with PTSD, gentrification, the monstrosity of racism, and Edward Scissorhands.
Fiction Unbound’s celebration of Nebula Award nominees continues. This week, a collection of slightly longer SF/F confections: novelettes. Come for the alternate histories, stay for the reincarnation and romance.
Fiction Unbound continues our annual tradition of admiring the unique voices and daring ideas that are the short stories nominated by SWFA member writers for the Nebula Awards. No predictions.
Dystopia can be fun, in the right hands, but time loops probably aren’t. Example: our own era. Fiction Unbound writers Gemma and Catie explore stories that consider what the future may bring based on where we are presently, in the new collection A People’s Future of the United States.
Laini Taylor put a restriction on this project: killing couldn’t be the solution to her characters’ conflicts. The result is a harrowing exploration of nightmares, both lived and dreamed.
Whitney Scharer’s historical fiction The Age of Light is a sumptuous look into photographer and artist Lee Miller’s relationship with Man Ray. Set in Paris in the early 1930’s, this novel does a beautiful job of giving Lee Miller a strong, clear voice during her formative years as a artist.
2015 Man Booker winner Marlon James embraces epic fantasy with a non-conforming, lightning-paced tale that up-ends every expectation.
The award-winning Sarah Pinsker finally has a collection out, and it’s excellent.
Newman’s novel is an inspired time-travel story and a troubled look at progressive hopes.
Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series continues with a story that asks, “What if life were fair?” It’s portal fantasy at its best: A door appears, a choice is made, you come back changed … if you come back at all.
If three consecutive novel Hugos have not convinced you N. K. Jemisin is a modern master, this collection will bridge the gap.
Guest Contributor Manual Aragon reviews Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias. “[Iglesias] creates a world that I know, where language knows no barriers, no walls, and moves exactly where it is most comfortable.”
Biomimicry abounds in this themed collection of new and classic science fiction “at the crux of creatures and tech,” from Hex Publishers.
Peng Shepherd’s thrilling debut novel explodes post-apocalyptic fantasies of independence.
Jane Yolen’s novel-in-verse, Finding Baba Yaga, arrives just in time for the season of the witch.
In the second New Fears anthology, horror knows no boundaries.
A watery, Gothic update of Greek myth by an exciting new voice in dark fiction.
In volume 4 of The Murderbot Diaries, Murderbot’s climactic showdown with an evil corporation pushes the rogue SecUnit to its limits, and beyond.
Yes, you can turn them into pigs, but there are so many other situations women find themselves in and such a variety of possible responses. Gods and Heroes, trigger warning: not all of them act like gentlemen.