Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Scarecrow Queen

The final battle is coming . . .

As the Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. The final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever . . .

Ah, the finale in a trilogy. I'm always a little cautious when picking up the last book in a series, especially one I've been waiting for for the best part of a year. This is where Melinda Salisbury's twisted fairytale comes to an end. The ending to a trilogy can go so right, or so wrong. Is it going to be Toy Story 3? Or is it going to be more X-Men: The Last Stand? The good news is it's not the later, but the bad news is it's not the former either. The Scarecrow Queen doesn't quite reach the bar that The Sin Eater's Daughter set, but it's a good end to the series.

 I loved The Sin Eater's Daughter. I really liked The Sleeping Prince. And I liked The Scarecrow Queen. And they look all kinds of gorgeous on my bookshelf!

Scarecrow Queen picks up immediately where Sleeping Prince left off. Literally. The protagonist of The Sin Eater's Daughter, Twylla, crawls out of the hiding place she dove into at the end of the last book (it doesn't feel so much like a book break as a chapter break. You'd better hope you remember the story from book two!). Prince Aurek has taken the throne of Lormere and the protagonist of the second book, Errin, hostage. The characters are scattered and pretty much either broken or battered or both. After the crushingly bleak story of The Sleeping Prince that was one awful event after another, I was bracing myself for more of the same in this book. So I was pleasantly surprised that there was a more optimistic, hopeful story this time around. 

The pacing of this book was pretty lean, almost to a fault. Because everything happened so quickly and, dare I say it, easily, the world, which had felt so expansive in the last books, felt much more contained. It felt less like a battle crossing two kingdoms and more like guerilla warfare in neighbouring cities. The structure of the book makes everything feel a little rushed too. Split into thirds, the first person pov switches from Twylla to Errin, then back again for the final third. This gives a view of both sides of the battle, but it also means that you never spend enough time on either side to really feel the threat and peril. Twylla goes from cleaning out chamber pots in a field somewhere to Katniss Everdeen in the space of about three chapters. Key plot points are skimmed over or mentioned in passing in the other character's chapters. There are some moments - like Prince Aurek's treatment of the alchemists or the rebels burning down of his castle - that it would have been better to see rather than just hear people talk about. There's a lot of talk in Errin's chapter's about the so called Dawn Rising group, but aside from a few stunts, I never really got a sense of this enormous rebellion that could pose a threat to the Sleeping Prince. The story, which felt like it had been getting bigger and bigger, felt a bit deflated this time around.

Speaking of the Sleeping Prince ... woah! Just ... woah! Do you ever sometimes worry about an author based on the horrible things they are able to imagine their character doing? The scenes where the prince manipulates Errin like a literal puppet are incredibly dark and pretty sickening. Aurek is a proper villain. There's none of that tragic backstory stuff that dilutes a truly magnificent bastard. Aurek isn't a misunderstood anti-hero who's just need the love of a good woman to save him. He's pure evil, through and through.

It's because of this I was really disappointed that Errin didn't get any sort of venegance on Aurek. After everything he did to her, I was looking forward to her getting some payback, so it was a colossal letdown that she was still being used by him right up until the end. Her relationship with Silas and Aurek's using them against each other fell a bit flat too. They only get two scenes together and maybe it's just because it's been too long since I read The Sleeping Prince, but I didn't feel any connection between them at all. When another character posits that Errin loves Silas, I think I actually said "really?" out loud. I loved the characters of Errin and Twylla though. Both were badasses in their own way, with Twylla bringing the fight to Aurek despite her own self-doubt, and Errin using her apothecary skills to create the poison needed to bring him down. It was a bit of a shame that Silas was MIA for pretty much the entire book (and when he is around all he does naff all), but the two male thirds of book one's love triangle, Lief and Merek were back and then some! I was always on board the Twylla/Lief ship, even when it all went to hell at the end of The Sin Eater's Daughter. Realisitcally, there was never going to be a happy ending for this pair, and if there had been it would have felt like a massive rug-pull that would have probably annoyed me more than anything else. I loved Lief so much in the first book that I couldn't really hate him, despite the awful things he did. Is he a good buy who made a (series of) bad decision(s)? Or a bad guy who had a little glimmer of good in him? Who knows?

I was glad that Melinda Salisbury didn't go down the road of getting Twylla and Merek together, even though there were hints of the attraction between the pair. It always feels lazy to me when authors feel the need to pair up absolutely everyone in their cast of characters rather than write more complex relationships that don't fall into neat and tidy couples. I didn't expect her to really. Melinda Salisbury is an author who doesn't really do the "... and they all lived happily ever after" thing. Every character - bar Silas - gets their moment in the sun. Their actions and motivations always feel genuine. You believe these people have lived through the horrors of war. You believe that they'd risk their lives and their sanity to bring peace to people they've never even met. They've changed. They've grown. They feel like real people and you feel like they've earned their journeys and their endings. With a lot of YA stories, the journey from beginning to end can feel like it fell in the heroines lap and she was just along for the ride, but there's not a bit of that here. The characters are so incredibly well written, they're the best thing about a series that has a lot of things vying to be the best bit.

There was one plot point that really bothered me though, and unfortunately it was quite a big one because it sort of dumped on something I loved about the first book. After the searing indictment of religion and its exploitation by the powers that be to keep the masses in line, it ended up kind of saving the day here. In The Sin Eater's Daughter, the evil queen used the lie that Twylla was the living embodiment of a vengeful goddess to keep control over her people and anyone who may have threatened her. This was crap of course, and the queen was just poisoning her enemies and claiming it was the work of a higher power, but Twylla uses that same lie to get people on side and launch a claim for the throne herself. Yes, it could be argued that it's for the greater good, but it's a shame that something that was so cleverly subverted earlier in this series ended up being pretty standard. I suppose you could argue that Twylla was exploiting the queen's earlier exploitation of her to her advantage, but I just read it as her doing exactly the same thing to the people as the earlier queen did. Perhaps that's a hint of a dark future for Twylla, but it's never really followed up on or hinted strongly enough for me to belive that was the intention.

One of my biggest criticisms of the The Sleeping Prince was that it was so unrelentingly bleak that it was hard to enjoy it. Even when you're reading a gripping story from the pen of an incredibly talented author, when the plot is the equivalent of one slow motion punch in the feelings after the other, you do get a little weary. The Scarecrow Queen has it's moments - particularly between Errin and Aurek - but there's much more hope and cautious optimism to be found here. If you didn't really enjoy The Sin Eater's Daughter and/or The Sleeping Prince, this book isn't going to turn the series around for you. But, much like those books, it's a darkly irresistible read, a twisted fairytale, and a fitting conclusion to a fantastic trilogy. 

No comments:

Post a Comment