The premise of this book is striking. It’s a fantasy book with a love triangle where the princess, who is determined to do her duty for her family and country by marrying someone she hopes she can love, actually falls in love with her soon-to-be sister-in-law instead. This premise is unique. It promises so much for the world of YA fantasy. While other concepts of the book were problematic, the romance is the part of the book that delivers. I want to note that this book is also a first novel.
Denna is a princess who travels to secure an alliance with a neighboring country by marrying the Crown Prince, to whom she has been engaged almost her entire life. She meets Mare, the sister of her betrothed (and princess), by training to ride horses with her in order to fit in better in her new country where horses are very important to their culture and society. They begin by disliking each other, if only because they have so little in common, and gradually grow through a friendship into something more.
Denna and Mare’s relationship is probably the central theme by way of being the best written portions of the book. What I most appreciated was that, although the love triangle is a central theme to this narrative, there is so much more going on. This relationship is executed with subtlety and grace that is often missing from YA romance in general, let alone anything LGBT.
Denna and Mare were excellent characters. Denna is smart, educated, and adept at the court life she trained for. Mare is not so good at fitting in but she works hard, is (mostly) not spoiled despite her family situation, and is also intelligent and loyal. Other characters in the book were not as vivid. I have no idea what Prince Thandi’s motivations are. The other members of the governing group in the book seem to draw a hardline on whatever position suits them and then ignore everything else.
The gender roles are interesting in this novel. Women are involved in court, sit in high positions at the round table, and are generally more equal in many ways they are not (or have just begun to be) in our own modern society. Even better, this equality varies throughout the mentioned regions in the book and is nuanced by culture. Relationships are similarly egalitarian, with people loving or marrying whomever they want, although socioeconomic status is still a factor. However, despite all this really neat background information, everyone still treats Denna like it’s her job to be pretty and quiet. She’s well-trained, maybe even more so than Thandi. Still, no one takes her seriously or wants her to be involved in internal or international politics.
Some peripheral characters are pretty flat. Despite the vast geography and complex interaction between muggles and force-sensitives, I can’t place why magic is so forbidden and why it must be hidden in this book’s world. Many secondary characters die. Some of them for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, but sometimes that’s how the world works.
***THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS MINOR PLOT SPOILERS ***
I was a little frustrated with the concept of how easily Denna cheats on Thandi and how little she really grasps it. She plans to have Mare come back and sleep with her, after they initially realize the depth of their physical and emotional attraction. Thandi seems legitimately hurt by Denna’s infidelity because he wants to love her, even though he admits he doesn’t yet. I am not irritated by the inclusion of a scene where someone betrays their fiance with someone they love. I think I’m more upset that there’s no real discussion or honesty between Thandi and Denna after the fact.
Then the story almost ‘makes it okay’ because she breaks up with him and leaves with Mare. It’s okay to choose the one you love, but I would have appreciated a more honest, open, thoughtful discussion between Thandi and Denna that didn’t cheapen their relationship and undermine Denna and Mare’s.
*** END OF SPOILERS ***
Overall, I really liked this book. The romance was excellent, the fantasy was good. As others have pointed out, there was room to improve the depth and motivations for secondary characters and some of the political intrigue could have been deeper and more clear. Despite the flaws, this book stood out to me as an excellent read with likeable main characters. The political interplay between magic and non-magic in this book has interesting underpinnings that will likely be expanded in further sequels, to which I look forward.