I have mixed feelings about this book. While I’d still recommend it, there are definitely some things about it that bother me.
On the one hand, the entire premise of the story was incredibly original. From the half old-school fantasy half futuristic-dystopian setting to the very basis of the plot, this book was new and fresh and unlike anything I had ever read before. It certainly wasn’t the typical young adult fantasy read.
I also really loved the main character, Keralie. She was somewhat more typical to the YA fantasy genre, and she reminded me a bit of Mare from the Red Queen series (a series which I love dearly, by the way). The character of Mackiel was also very interesting and compelling, and the storylines revolving around him and his relationship to Keralie were probably my favorite parts of the story.
Yet this discussion of characters brings up one of my first issues with the novel. If you didn’t already know, the premise of the story involves the country (aptly named Quadara) being divided into four quadrants: Toria, Archia, Eonia, and Ludia. Keralie and Mackiel are both Torians. The Torian characters are the most well developed in the book and definitely seem the most human. The characters from other quadrants often fall a bit flat and are almost caricature-ish.
This leads pretty nicely into my biggest complaint with the novel: the worldbuilding. More specifically, my issue was with the way in which the worldbuilding was conveyed to the reader. The entire time I was reading, especially in the first half, I felt like I was being condescended to. Every time a character performed an action, those actions were then explained to the reader in terms of their quadrant’s values and personality types, and those were often the only traits the characters had. It would have been fine, in my opinion, if the characters simply portrayed the traits of their quadrant, but every single time anyone did anything, it was qualified with a statement like “in typical Ludist fashion” or “because of her curious Torian nature.” It got old very fast. I soon found myself screaming at the book that I already know that Torians are curious and begging to just get on with the story. The other place where this was an issue was with Queenly Law. Before the book even begins, the tenants of Queenly Law are listed for the reader. Then, individual laws from this list are placed in certain chapter heads. Yet the characters within the story are constantly explaining to each other what Queenly Law states. It was overdone.
The second big issue I have with this book is the plot, particularly the latter half. In the beginning, I was incredibly interested and engaged. It’s a given to the reader very early on that the queens will die (it’s in the title), so it was very interesting to be reading certain chapters from their perspectives. I wanted to know more about Keralie and Mackiel and their history and what he was hiding. I was hooked. But that started to fall apart about halfway through the book. Mackiel was soon left behind, only to continuously pop up out of nowhere, and the plot seemed to diverge from its original course.
It's very hard to discuss without spoiling the book, but I’ll try my best. An event that the readers and Keralie have assumed to already have happened turns out not to have happened yet. This should be a good thing. They should be able to stop it now, and they try. Yet they end up wandering around in vain and accomplishing nothing. It happens anyway. Keralie has been unable to effect any change. The problem with this for me is that the main character lacks agency. She doesn’t seem to be in control of her own world. This problem grows much worse with the big twist of the novel, which blows lack of agency to a new proportion. From that point in the novel on, I was totally disillusioned with the plot. I couldn’t follow the timeline anymore, and I found myself wondering what the point of most of the novel even was, if Keralie never could have done anything anyway.
The other thing I didn’t like about the plot was that the mastermind behind the whole thing, the true antagonist, didn’t make an appearance until the final quarter of the book, when suddenly she was narrating certain chapters. I felt cheated out of a chance to try to put all the puzzle pieces together.
Yet still, I kept reading all the way through to the end, desperate to learn the truth of the matter and to know where Keralie ended up.
Overall, Four Dead Queens was a brilliantly conceived novel and a refreshing twist on the YA fantasy genre standards, but it was much less brilliantly executed. It was an experiment with the technique of the unreliable narrator, but it failed, because the clues weren’t there for the reader to pick up on at all. It still might be worth a read, but I’m walking away from it feeling mostly disappointed, especially since I had such high hopes for it in the first place.
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