Oh, man. I really wanted to love this. The synopsis sounded very cool, and I always enjoy reading fantasy books that focus on women. Let's start with the things I liked about this book. My favorite character was Adale because I have a soft spot for characters without a lot of confidence. She doesn't want to be queen, and she often feels like she's not good enough. She's not the heir that Albion was. She can't be as good a ruler as her parents or her cousins. Although her characterization is a little weak--in that everyone says she's a terrible heir, but we never really get evidence of it--she's fun to root for and grows in confidence as the story goes on.
Calvin also presents an inclusive world in terms of sexuality. Gender isn't an issue for Esofi when it comes to choosing an heir. There's a non-binary god and their non-binary followers. There's also a ritual called the Change that allows people to change genders, "though it wouldn't last for very long unless the person being transformed had a soul that was willing to remain in its new body forever."
The dragon attacks and the idea of creating a university to train users of magic were cool. Calvin does some unexpected things with this plotline. I also really enjoyed the tension between magic and science, and I think it could've been explored a lot more.
However, overall, I don't think this manuscript was quite there. There were details that should've been seeded way earlier in the story so that their first mention wasn't just before they became important to the plot. All the side characters are pretty one-dimensional. Esofi says one character is "quiet and gentle" and that "she knew she would always feel safe with him" even though we never see anything to back that up.
The humor feels off, too. When Adale hears Esofi's introduced a new clause to their betrothal agreement, she assumes it's a ban on her drinking. It's played off as funny, but we never see Adale drinking to excess, especially not in a detrimental way. At one point, Esofi is injured, and one of her maids says, "Do focus on recovering, Princess. I need you to get well enough for me to be able to slap you." Far from making me laugh, passages like this made me cringe.
The logic is shaky at first. In the beginning, I was willing to skate over the fact that Esofi has traveled for months to get to Ieflaria's capital and has been preparing for her marriage since she was a child and yet she doesn't know who the next heir is. I would assume this was an attempt to amp up the suspense of the scene.
As the story goes on, this tenuous logic gradually unravels. One of Esofi's ladies maids is her cousin but speaks to her rudely, even more rudely than would be allowed by a member of the extended royal family. Another maid is actually a spy/assassin and has zero knowledge of diplomacy even though, again, this betrothal has been in the works for years. Surely, a woman can be trained in both covert intelligence and diplomacy over a decade or so.
At one point, it seems that Esofi is being stood up by the person she's chosen as her betrothed, and the servant gives her "a humiliatingly pitying look." But...how would a servant even know this person wasn't at a large gathering, and if they did know that, why would they care? It's an awkward attempt to play up Esofi's broken heart. Also, Esofi's expected to announce her choice of betrothed at a ball without telling the king and queen first. But why would a king and queen be content to let a foreigner pick her spouse from their kin without informing them of the choice in advance. Again, it seems like a blatant ploy to increase the tension of a scene rather than an obstacle that would crop up naturally from the plot.
Ultimately, I don't think this book knows exactly what it wants to be. Sometimes it seems like a character-driven romance with over-the-top baddies, but it doesn't quite dig deep enough into the characters to hit the mark. Other times, it feels like an action-adventure with dragon fights, but again, it doesn't quite sink its teeth into that category enough to really count as one. Although the story presents interesting ideas and can keep the reader entertained, I really think this manuscript could've benefited from another round of revisions to tighten up the world and the logic. I'd recommend it to fans of fantasy romance.
Thanks to NetGalley, NineStar Press, and Effie Calvin for the e-book in exchange for an honest review.