Epic, female-centred fantasy is something I’m always looking for, and A Queen in Hiding definitely promised a lot, with a completed story in four books each coming out only four weeks apart!
Book: A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff
Read before: No
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Tor Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence and injury (not hugely graphic for epic fantasy), major character death, animal death, mention of miscarriage.
I loved the first section of this book. We’re introduced to a fascinating fantasy court filled with subterfuge, giant cats, and a matriarchal line of powerful queens, all with blue hair and varied magical talents. We meet Cressa, the current queen, who can alter people’s memories, and see her struggle to balance motherhood, and grief over her recent loss, with keeping a grip on her rebellious court. Cressa is a fantastic character, one that really exemplifies what I’m looking for in a ‘Strong Female Character’. We also meet her daughter, Cerulia, who at eight still hasn’t had her talent verified (she claims she can speak to animals, but no one’s ever heard of that being a queenly talent before!), and some of those behind the machinations, including the slimy Matwyck. Things are set up for a tight, emotionally literate court fantasy, and I was living for it. There’s a coup, and Cressa and Cerulia have to flee – okay, I was thinking. Time to get into the meat of the story as the queen and princess have to survive and Cressa has to work to take back her throne. And then the story takes a turn.
Cressa drops Cerulia off with a lower-class family that they met once, and erases their memories of this happening so that they will raise her as a foundling. At this point, I assumed I needed to adjust my expectations away from that political fantasy and Cressa as a main character, and instead expect a time jump to Cerulia in her teens, and a narrative of a lost princess taking back her throne. And that is the narrative I think we’re still driving towards, but unfortunately, we don’t get there in this book. From this point, the story becomes bloated and slow-paced, as we flit from new perspective to new perspective, occasionally checking in on Cerulia doing… nothing. The main thread of the plot is just dropped, and despite several time jumps, the rest of the book covers 12 years of really, very little happening other than characters being manoeuvred into place excruciatingly slowly. I assume they are all going to come together in later books, and be woven into one overarching plot, but I genuinely don’t think we need this much backstory for every single player. It’s easy to identify the main cast (Thalen, a scholar; Matwyck, the aforementioned bad guy; maybe Sumroth, a soldier in an enemy army), but there are a lot of minor character viewpoints also mixed in, and it slows things down and muddies the waters of the plot considerably.
This book just feels like set up, and not in the way that a first book in a series sometimes can, when it has to introduce the world-building and has a slower pace as a result. No, this literally all feels like it’s completely preliminary to the main plot. Cerulia, the titular queen in hiding, has next to no page time, and almost exactly no character development. There was nothing at all to be gained from checking in with her between the ages of 8 and 20 – if I were in charge, I would have included her flight from the castle as a prologue, then picked up immediately twelve years later, working the backstory of her time hidden as a guardsman’s daughter into a few asides, because honestly, that’s how relevant it is. The action that finally gets going in the last chapter of the book should be the first chapter of the whole thing. It leaves me concerned that this series could have been a single 600 or 700 page book if it had been edited more tightly.
The writing is certainly readable, and I do have to say that despite the pacing issues, it isn’t at all dense or difficult to read. I did have fun with it, and it wasn’t a chore to read, despite my negativity here. The dialogue is often quite cringy, though, being either too modern for the situation or weirdly archaic – plus, I’ve never seen so many exclamation marks used in serious fiction, and certainly not three at once, multiple times! I also had an issue with the naming system, or rather, the lack of one. I couldn’t see any clear cultural consistency in the naming, with some characters having generic Euro-fantasy names, some dramatically unusual, and some modern English, even within the same families or villages. There seemed to be naming trends for some fathers and sons to have rhyming names, but not all of them? Just a lot of little inconsistencies that added up to a lack of believability in the worldbuilding – and in something building up to an international war, I think that having an idea of each country’s culture is quite important.
Ultimately, I think it will take reading the rest of the series to see if my suspicions are correct: that this is really one long book, split up (and bulked up!) to create a publishing storm. There’s a great story somewhere in here – but if the first book doesn’t stand on its own two feet at all, then I think there will be a lot of disappointed readers. Three cats from me, but I am hopeful for later books based on how good that first section was!