Look at me, finally reviewing a book which isn’t a classic. I’m so proud of myself. Anyways, I picked this book up for two reasons. One, I mean, look at the gorgeous cover. I admit it, I’m a sucker for beautiful covers. Second, because this is a fantasy book based around West African folklore. I love books which examine folklore from around the world and bring it to life. I’ve read a few about Russian and Chinese folklore (as well as tons of European folklore retellings), but this is the first one I read about African folklore. However, and I feel really bad saying this both because of the folklore I love and this being a debut novel of Brown, this book is filled with so many things I didn’t enjoy.
Release: June 2020
Page Count: 480
Synopsis: (from Goodreads) “For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom. But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition. When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?”
I am happy I listened to this book on audiobook, as I could not start to pronounce a lot of the names and terms used in the story and it was nice to hear their pronunciation. I loved the play on West African tradition, set in a quasi-Middle Eastern and North African fantasy world, filled with political unrest and peasant hardships. I found the aspects of magic well woven into a mostly interesting world. However, I found much of the world-building conveyed through telling and not showing, and the characters not that interesting. The romance felt forced and laughable and the conflict often felt contrived with strange solutions. I really disliked Katrina, and Malik felt secondary to the motivations that were forced on him. And I really disliked the whole competition thing, which felt like a way just to bring Katrina and Malik together.
I haven’t done a multi-section review with non-spoilers and spoilers in a while, but I think this book needs it because I have a lot of thoughts and I don’t want to spoil such a recent book for readers who might be interested in reading it. I also feel bad that I definitely have a minority opinion on this book, because it seems to be universally loved by most people I know who have read it.
Before I get to some of the criticisms of this book, I’ll talk about the things I enjoyed about it. I really appreciated the high stakes for both Malik and Karina. They were both people forced into impossible situations. There were also a lot of people against them and their goal, and a lot to find out as the story progressed. We had to find out who killed Karina’s mother, whether her mother would be able to rise again, who would gain control of the country, whether Malik would succeed in his goal to kill Karina, if Malik and Karina would fall in love…the list goes on and on. This book never lacked conflict.
The world itself was interesting too, even if a lot of the worldbuilding was done through telling the reader instead of showing the world. Karina’s mother was a Sultana, and because of Karina’s character in the beginning wanted to be free and snuck into the city disguised at night (also with Malik being poor and sneaking his way into wealth), I was kind of reminded of Aladdin. Probably just me…
There are also quite a few good twists (even if some felt connived and one felt super obvious) which kept the story moving in ways I couldn’t help but enjoy. I also liked all the hyena mythology and tricksters blended into the story.
Saying that, let’s get into the negatives of this book.
First, the characters are all pretty generic. Karina is a really bland protagonist, both because she’s feels like a stereotype of the princess who wants to break free from her constraints and because she deals with every conflict so easily (more in the spoiler section). Malik, on the other hand, is really interesting, even if it makes no sense why he falls in love with Karina. It just happens for no reason. Saying that, all the other characters were extremely predictable, especially the ones who came out later to betray Karina, while I was simply not surprised. None of the background characters were compelling to me except for Karina’s mother, who dies in the beginning of the book.
Second, most of the character’s motivations feel forced. Malik has to try to kill Karina to save his sister. Karina has to become queen because her mother dies. She also has to stay in the city even if she wants to escape because of a curse. So the main characters often don’t feel like they make their own decisions and actions and if they do it’s usually Karina doing something stupid but still ending up perfectly fine because of…reasons.
Third, the worldbuilding is second to the plot and romance. This is more of a preference thing, I get that, and some readers might not mind this. I would think I would be too, considering I rarely read fantasy, but this plot to me felt pretty simple and overdone (assassin falls for the person he’s supposed to kill, princess must rise to power surrounded by trouble). Nothing in the plot felt unique to me, which was why I wanted more focus on the world, because it is the unique world that could have shined. And at points it did, but most of the time it felt background to the plot.
Fourth, the romance feels so bland and predictable. They fall in love (don’t ask me why, because there is zero development on their romance) and are conflicted because both know they might have to kill the other. It feels so forced and them being friends or at least not forcing romance too soon would have made me enjoy this book so much more.
I want to say more, but that would be giving away a lot of spoilers, so let’s switch to the spoiler section.
So, you know how I was saying that Malik was really the only character I found interesting. Well, he almost dies in the end, being possessed by the evil spirit so that he can get rid of it by stabbing himself in the chest…so, that’s great. Of course, he comes back, but I was like, it seems fitting that he dies as anything good in this book dies.
Let’s get into a few more detailed complaints I had about Karina. First, about her overcoming conflicts too easily. She is challenged to a one v. one battle with one of the competitors. Now, we have no prior knowledge that she is highly skilled in fighting, and yet she destroys the girl after she gets angry. She also outshines a musician in the beginning of the book at a bar, but at least that made sense as she is skilled in music. Second, her whole character arch is centered around her trying to marry one of the competitors so he can be king and she can kill him to get his heart and save her mother. Convoluted, I know. And yet on her wedding night, she randomly just decides not to go through with it. It feels really anti-climatic and unfitting, as she seemed so determined to save her mother and now is completely fine with not resurrecting her. All in all, I just didn’t find Karina interesting.
The ending was interesting, I will admit. Karina is thrown out of power and must escape while the bad guy takes over the city. This sets up for the second book. According to Goodreads, this is a duology, meaning it’ll be two books.
I think I got carried away with this review…it’s nearly three times as long as my average review. Ah, well.
Overall, I thought this book was okay. There were aspects I really enjoyed, and others I really didn’t like. I ended up giving this book two out of five stars, though it’s probably closer to 2.5 stars for me. I honestly don’t see myself picking up the next book, though if I have the time I wouldn’t be against reading it either. I guess I just wanted so much more from the book and it just had too many weaknesses.
Have you read this book? Or are you interested in reading it? Have you read any good books on African folklore, because I would love to read more? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,