“Real love is the strongest kind of steel. It’s blade that can be melted down, its form changed with every bang of the hammer, but to break it is a task no one is capable of. Not even Death.”
Once there were two sisters born with a bond so strong that it forged them together forever. Roa and Essie called it the hum. It was a magic they cherished—until the day a terrible accident took Essie’s life and trapped her soul in this world.
Dax—the heir to Firgaard’s throne—was responsible for the accident. Roa swore to hate him forever. But eight years later he returned, begging for her help. He was determined to dethrone his cruel father, under whose oppressive reign Roa’s people had suffered.
Roa made him a deal: she’d give him the army he needed if he made her queen. Only as queen could she save her people from Firgaard’s rule.
Then a chance arises to right every wrong—an opportunity for Roa to rid herself of this enemy king and rescue her beloved sister. During the Relinquishing, when the spirits of the dead are said to return, Roa discovers she can reclaim her sister for good.
All she has to do is kill the king.
DISCLAIMER: I received a finished copy from Wunderkind PR in exchange for an honest review.
CW: child death, loss of a loved one, violence, graphic injury, animal cruelty
When I started reading The Caged Queen, I immediately had to stop, because not four months before, I’d created a new character and named her Roa. You might know her if you’ve been following my posts about NaNoWriMo 2019. And even if you don’t, please know that my reaction was a delighted and befuddled Spiderman meme. Yes, this one.
So, if nothing else, I can say that Kristen Ciccarelli has excellent taste in character names!
Thankfully, there is more that I can say about The Caged Queen, some of it good, and some of it bad. You know how it is here on The Words Gremlin. My opinions get messy and I squint at a good 80% of the romances pushed my way. C’est la vie.
Anyway, The Caged Queen picks up almost immediately where The Last Namsara left off, but this time from Roa’s POV. In the wake of The Last Namsara‘s events, Roa is now trapped in a loveless marriage, a sacrifice she made in order to save her home in the scrublands from starvation. Marrying Dax and becoming the queen of Firgaard was a calculated choice, and one full of frustration and sacrifice, though certainly not filled with love.
On top of that, Roa is also coping with the truth about her white hawk, Essie. Essie is her sister, though her soul is bound in an animal form, and though their connection has been extraordinary all their lives (the magic of fantasy twins, which is a trope I truly can’t get enough of), something is starting to fray, something critical.
This really is the strength of the novel, I think. The bond Roa and Essie share, and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to preserve that bond despite the dangers attached, forms the story’s heart. This is a book about what you will do for your twin, for the person who knows you best in all the world, and what consequences you are willing to accept for your choices.
Of course (here we go again; I’m so sorry, folks), this means the romance positively pales in comparison to the bond between sisters. Roa stands to lose not only Essie in The Caged Queen, but everyone in the scrublands that she loves, should she fail to find a way around the famine bearing down on her home. She has incredibly important non-romantic relationships that sit near and dear to her heart, and as a result, the lukewarm attempts at romance fall flat on their face. Throw in the fact that one love interest is effectively useless in a pinch, and the other feels too ambitious without regard for how Roa feels, and I’m just not into it. Neither option is good for Roa. Neither one really supports her in a way I thought was worth getting excited over.
“But that kind of thing happens!” you say. It sure does! But if you want me to believe it’s a romance, and you want me to be able to cheer on two characters catching feelings, it helps when the romantic grounds are sturdy. Which they are not here. Frankly, they’re flimsy at best and I wasn’t really having it.
I will admit, though, that the “kiss so we don’t get caught” trope was deployed very well. So kudos for that, because I am a sucker for it. Just an absolute fool.
And circling back around to a positive, the prose continues to be enchanting and filled with this quality that reminds me of spoken myth, rather than anything written. The stories that come in between moments of present narrative feel like they could be told around a campfire, or as a bedtime story, and that’s a very specific but extremely ephemeral quality in my eyes. I admire it a lot, and I’m delighted to see that it carried over strong from The Last Namsara.
As far as sequels go, The Caged Queen was neither better nor worse than The Last Namsara. The prose struck me just as strongly as it did in the first book, and I love a good story about twins bound up in all manner of magic, testing the limits of their connection. And on the other hand, the romance once again left me disappointed and disinterested, something I have to chalk up to personal taste but also lower the star rating for in the same breath. I’m left not understanding the depth of the hype I’ve seen on Twitter, but accepting that this is so very easily a case of the wrong book for the wrong reader, and there are so many other folks this series may suit more than myself.