The Reluctant Queen, the second book in The Queens of Renthia series, begins shortly after Daleina’s crowning as Queen of Aratay. She hasn’t been queen for a hot second before she tries to work with spirits to build a new village, and instead experiences a death-like black out. While “dead,” or in a state of false death, as Hamon the healer diagnoses, all control over the spirits is lost, and they go on a killing spree. This is problematic. More so in that trying to exert control over the spirits to do necessary tasks—like build villages and keep spirits in check—triggers the false deaths. Daleina is in a conundrum. While Hamon and Daleina’s sister, Arin, work to find a cure for the false death, Daleina takes a pragmatic approach to maintaining order: she initiates a desperate search for a new heir in case she has a false death and doesn’t wake up. (Readers who remember what happened to the other queen candidates at the end of The Queen of Blood will know that heirs are in short supply.) Daleina sends her friend and trainer Champion Ven along with the Captain of the Queen’s Guard, Alet, on a search for a new heir to insure the safety of Aratay from spirits run amok should Daleina fully succumb to the false death. Ven and Alet find a very capable candidate in a distant village: a mother of two, married to a man-child, and very, very against using any of the immense power she possesses. Describing Naelin as reluctant to become an heir of Aratay is optimistic at best; her only concern is the safety of her children and maintaining their uneventful (mostly), village-dwelling lives.
While the book’s plot revolves around Naelin’s training as queen, the threat of invasion from neighboring Semo, and the bloodlust of rogue spirits, the book’s heart revolves around its non-romantic relationships: mothers and children, sisters, female friends, and female sovereigns.
Amanda Baldeneaux: Naelin’s relationship with her children forms the backbone of The Reluctant Queen. It gives the reader a heroine who is past youth, tethered by her duty and love as a mother, and skeptical to the needs of the world, having lived long enough to see that most people are full of … something. This is no doe-eyed teenager in shock at the first sniff of carnage and in love with the first man who notices her. (Well, she was that girl once—and she married the guy—but there will be none of that foolishness for Naelin now, thank-you-very-much.)
CS Peterson: For me, Naelin is the best thing about the book. She is a 30-something female protagonist, dealing with issues that so many 30-something moms deal with, and then she is thrust into the middle of a fantasy adventure tale. The Reluctant Queen is worth reading for that reason alone. I’m having trouble thinking of any other fantasy stories with a mature female protagonist. Usually, when the young, available gal marries, she disappears from the stage until she’s an old woman waiting around like Obi-Wan Kenobi to give advice to the heroes as they go off to storm the castle. Or if she is older, she’s unattached, a la the Black Widow.
AB: What about Elastagirl, in The Incredibles?
CSP: Yeah, Elastagirl! Definitely a 30-something mom with superhero abilities. And both she and Naelin know how to call out baloney when they see it. Some of my favorite moments in the book come when Venn or Queen Daleina demand something of Naelin that a young candidate from, say, the Northeast Academy, would simply accept as an assigned challenge, and Naelin flat out says no. Naelin takes her kiddos by the hand, calls the authorities out on their ridiculous manipulative behavior and walks away. The difference between Elastagirl and Naelin is Elastagirl knows all about her superpowers and how to control them. Naelin is afraid of her powers, in a kind of denial.
AB: Both The Incredibles and The Reluctant Queen are about rediscovering one's true self. Elastagirl shelved who she was to embrace domesticity, thinking she had to make a choice between being a hero and being a mom. Naelin shares the same line of thought. She can be a good mom or a good heir, but she can't be both. Both stories set out to dismantle the either/or dichotomy. Elastagirl learns she's a better mother because she embraces her full self, which includes her heroine identity. Naelin, well ... no spoilers! This idea that women can only be one thing after having kids, and that's a mother, is prevalent in modern life. (I know I battle making space for my writing and feeling authentic in my identity as one who writes in addition to being a mom, which can be all encompassing in physical and emotional labor.)
CSP: Naelin and Elastagirl also struggle in their relationships with their children as they try so hard to be The Ideal Mother. That parent-child struggle isn't limited to the female characters in the book, though. Hamon has quite the problematic relationship with his mom. But again, no spoilers here. There are interesting things going on in the sisterly realm as well. As you said, Daleina sends her sister, Arin, away for her own protection. But the messages are conflicting. Daleina wants Arin to stay at the capitol. She needs her sister’s support. At the same time she sends Arin away from her presence, hoping that will keep her a little bit safer. Naelin does the same with her kids. Her daughter, Erian, is by turns trying to act older-sisterish for her baby brother’s sake while being afraid that her mother might die. Arin and Erian work together in the climactic scenes of the story to thread this impossible needle in a surprising way.
AB: The sisters of the book certainly make some, er, interesting decisions. We'll leave it at that. Another interesting point to consider: despite this book being built on relationships, romance, the most commonly portrayed relationship in fiction, is downplayed in the story. There's a taste, but it's background noise compared to the pressing issues at hand: Daleina dying, invading armies, rogue spirits, mother-child rifts.
CSP: There are a few critical male/female romantic relationships. From the first book we know that Daleina and Harmon are a pair. The other romantic relationship we see right off is Naelin and her problematic husband, Renet. There is an interesting symmetry between the two couples. Daleina/Hamon are younger but more clear-sighted as to who they are, where they came from, their faults and their devotion to each other. By contrast Naelin/Renet are older and have family responsibilities, but they have less self-knowledge. They are each more devoted to their fantasies about their own lives, although they see each other’s faults pretty clearly. The inciting incident of the book is Renet trying to point out to his wife that her amazing powers should not be ignored. He does it in a truly thoughtless and irresponsible way, but he is right.
AB: He's right and he's wrong. He pushes her to accept her true self, but he's a total ass in how he goes about it. By denying her powers, Naelin could have caused irreparable harm to the country, and to her children as a result. This is a true heroine's journey, as opposed to a hero's journey. Naelin's greatest foe is herself, her self doubt, and her fears of not being good enough to do the job that needs doing. She denied the call of the journey when Ven and Alet first came knocking, and without Renet's reckless pushing, she never would have embarked on her physical and spiritual journey to embrace her true self by way of her gifted powers.
CSP: What is our responsibility to our gifts? That is the overarching question of the series. Is the greater good the first good that must be served? Merecot obviously was born gifted, and her life’s goal is to be the best at what she does and follow those gifts as far as they can possibly take her. Daleina has done more than she thought possible with what she was given. Naelin's childhood trauma has made her afraid of her own power. “You can’t change what happened,” Ven tells Naelin, “and you can’t deny who you are.” She bristles at the champion, as any woman would, as any human being does when another tries to pin them down by defining who they are and are not. The queens are charged with bringing balance to the chaotic spirits that drive the elements of life in the realm of Renthia. Will they be able to bring balance to the desires of private life and the demands public need? There is one more book to come in Durst’s series. I’m interested to see how their majesties thread this impossible needle.
AB: I'm interested to see quite a few things, but I can't even allude to them here, because ...
We can revisit The Queens of Renthia when the third book comes out. In the meantime, I'll just be over here, impatiently waiting.
Forest photo: Snežana Trifunović