***Warning - this review contains minor, sort of, vague spoilers.***
To be honest, I was a little disappointed when I started reading this book. It’s a lot more of an introverted than I was expecting. There’s no big adventure, no tasks and triumphs. Our protagonist Twylla doesn’t even leave the castle! I was expecting a fierce and brave heroine in an epic battle against her captors, able to kill with a touch (think Rogue in X-Men. The comic books, not the movies!), but instead what I got was a slow burning, almost character study, sticking stubbornly with our protagonist as she hears and speaks of these far away kingdoms and terrible deeds, but rarely actually witnesses them. And I loved it!
Melinda Salisbury’s writing style is utterly beautiful. Because the story follows Twylla so closely in familiar territory, she’s free to lavish attention on the characters and surroundings she has created. It flies almost totally in the face of conventional YA storytelling but works so well. Our main character is isolated and locked away, and we’re right there with her. Everything is seen through Twylla's sometimes willfully ignorant and naive eyes, the apparent calm and peace of the castle gradually being stripped away as she discovers more about her surroundings, exposing the dark side of playing the princess in the tower. The world building and political intrigue is incredibly well written, elevating minor characters and those who could have been little more than cardboard cut outs (the scheming Queen, the spoiled Prince) to so much more.
Just as the ponderous story isn’t my usual thing, Twylla isn’t my usual type of YA heroine either. Seeming much younger than her 17 years, she’s a slave to her circumstances, lacking the ability or desire to express her own thoughts and opinions, so indoctrinated is she by life in the castle. Taken by the Queen to serve her kingdom as its Gods-appointed executioner and later its Queen after the death of the princess in infancy, she is obedient and afraid, willing to sacrifice her own happiness for what she believes is the good of her kingdom. At first, it’s more than a little frustrating - I wanted to grab her (gloved!) by the shoulders and shake her! – but as she gradually opens up to her seemingly naïve new guard Leif, her character unfolds and becomes far more endearing. I adored Lief as a character, his sparky personality and optimism contrasting perfectly with Twylla’s introverted cynicism. Their gradual shift from acquaintances, to friends, to lovers is quietly touching and utterly believable.
I loved the underlying indictment of religion and its use in controlling the masses. It's a credit to the author that this wasn't swept aside with a few throwaway lines or a dumbed down good guys/bad guys situation. So well written are the characters that you can understand their motivations, even if you don't agree with them. I even found myself nodding in agreement with the Queen at times! But then again, I've always rather fancied myself as a scheming Queen. Maybe one day ...
I try to avoid spoilers but my next comment doesn’t make sense without at least referencing a plot point which could be considered spoilery. I don’t want to give too much away about the ending, but I was torn. On one hand, I love a good twist ending, and this book had it in spades! But I was more than a little disappointed with the revelation about Lief. Not so much the story, but the fact that this is yet another YA book which seems to punish the protagonist for having sex. Not long after the “heroine” and “hero” sleep together, there is some sort of revelation and/or betrayal which ruins the burgeoning relationship and seems to taunt the protagonist with the idea that she should never have trusted the other person in the first place. It’s a disturbingly common trend in YA, one that I really don’t care for. That's not a critique of this book really because it actually fits in well with the characters we've come to understand and their motivations - unlike some other novels where it seems shoehorned in. I just don't like it!
I have to knock a star off because I think that books in a series should be able to stand alone, whereas this had the undeniable feel of setting up a far more epic series. That said, it works. I can’t wait for the sequel to this one! The book sets up perfectly for Twylla to spread her wings, to venture out into the rich and vibrant world Melinda Salisbury has created. I just hope she does!