This fantasy romance is full of cheese and decent people, which just makes it a wonderfully cosy read!
Book: Priest-Queen by Juniper Butterworth
Publication date: 15th March 2022
Ownership: E-ARC sent free of charge by author. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: minor violence and injury; internalised fatphobia and memory of fatphobic statements; familial abuse.
After the disappearance of the evil fairy pretending to be her sister Taryn, Elsyn finds herself crowned the first Priest-Queen in history. She would prefer to be left alone to make cheese and talk to cows, but instead she must get married and begin to right her kingdom. She sends Kandar, the goblin prince, to fetch her oldest friend, Ben, from exile. Together, can they turn back a lurking evil which threatens cheesemakers and civilians alike?
Priest-Queen is the second book in this series, but you can absolutely jump in without reading the first; I did, and I found that even though the events of the first book are important to the plot and characters, they’re all explained in enough detail for you to understand what’s going on, without bogging the story down in info-dumping. There are a few cameos from the previous book’s characters that might perhaps have had an added touch of fondness if I’d already known them, but I didn’t feel like they were extraneous to this story for lack of that fondness, if you see what I mean. That being said, I fully intend to go back and read the first book, because if it’s as lovely and warm as this, I’ll be delighted!
Despite the main character being queen, and there being fairly significant political stakes, this feels like a very personal, small-scale book; while it’s not quite fair to say that nothing happens, the focus is firmly on the personal development of the main characters. Once or twice I found myself wishing Elsyn would show a little more urgency in her actions, as this is billed as a ‘fantasy intrigue romance novella’, but the intrigue takes a backseat to the romance and both take a backseat, to a certain extent, to Elsyn’s thoughts about daily life. However, most of the time that suited me well, as I love slower stories of people healing and growing in themselves more than action-packed plots. I particularly liked the way that the poly romance developed; everyone’s emotions were given lots of time to grow, so it really felt like they were realistic, and all sides were given different, but equally romantic, connections that had me really rooting for them all to be together. I had one minor issue with the romance, which is very much just a personal preference: I’m not a fan of non-human love interests when there’s a strong physical element to the story, and Kandar’s non-human features are described quite a lot in the romance scenes. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a flaw in the book at all, just me not being keen on tusks and tails – I know a lot of people go for that, so I just thought I’d mention it was there!
Elsyn’s journey is one of confidence and balance: she knows she’s a competent priest, but the difficult part is believing she can be a competent queen, and a competent romantic partner. The abuses she’s suffered at the hands of the changeling everyone thought was her sister are etched deeply into her, but not in a way that makes her weak – she’s quietly defiant and strong, but hurting inside. I found her very likeable and easy to empathise with: she’s bluntly practical, but also insecure in almost a matter-of-fact way, particularly in how she thinks about her body and her weight. Elsyn is fat, and having been bullied for it by her “sister’s” court for years, she’s internalised a lot of fatphobia – her love interests think she is beautiful exactly the way she is, but she herself has a lot to work through to believe them. It’s very believably written – it’s not exactly fun to read, but it’s overall a very sensitive and affirming depiction, and I loved that side of the story.
I also absolutely loved the animals in this story. There are intelligent, bossy sacred cows, who have adopted Elsyn as part of the herd, and who not only talk to her telepathically, but also get involved in her mystery-solving, and there’s also an incredibly annoying but adorable magical horse, who was so funny. I think they’re just so much a sign of this lovely world, where even the elite value hard work and where the little things like kindness and cheese-making don’t stop mattering just because someone’s queen. All three of the main characters are flawed but fundamentally decent people just trying to do the right thing, which is my absolute favourite kind of character in any genre. There’s a warmth throughout the book, and a sort of classic fantasy feel of ‘good versus evil’ but where ‘good’ isn’t a farm boy with a magic sword, but a farm woman with a strong heart.
Priest-Queen is perfect for those looking for warmth and kindness in their fantasy – fans of The Goblin Emperor or Legends and Lattes will be thrilled. Even though I had a couple of small issues, I think that this is so delightful that it deserves a full five cats!