Liz Bourke Reviews Four Novels by Sarah Kozloff
A Queen in Hiding, Sarah Kozloff (Tor 978-1250168542, $12.99, 496pp, tp) January 2020.
The Queen of Raiders, Sarah Kozloff (Tor 978-1250168566, $16.99, 512pp, tp) February 2020.
A Broken Queen, Sarah Kozloff (Tor 978-1250168665, $16.99, 448pp, tp) March 2020.
The Cerulean Queen, Sarah Kozloff (Tor 978-1250168962, $16.99, 512pp, tp) April 2020.
Sarah Kozloff is a chair of film studies at Vassar College, where she’s apparently been teaching for the last 30 years. Her professional concentration on this visual narrative medium might be one reason why her debut fantasy series, the Nine Realms, feels both somewhat incoherent and rather old-fashioned.
It’s possible to treat all the books of the Nine Realms in a single review because Kozloff and her publisher have made the unusual choice to publish them in quick succession, between January and April 2020. A Queen in Hiding is to be rapidly followed by The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, and The Cerulean Queen. I received review copies of all four at the same time. I decided to read them all together in part because of this publication schedule. I kept reading them in the baffled hope that they’d eventually develop a coherent narrative through-line and thematic argument. The cover copy promises much more interesting novels than the books actually deliver.
This is your reasonably standard monarchist usurpation-restoration narrative with added gods, destinies, and god-prompted invasions, save that unlike most narratives of usurpation and restoration, the legitimacy and right to rule of the usurped monarch is never in question or even contested by her enemies. Her ability to gather enough allies to enforce her right to rule and to defend herself from those enemies is, however, in question: Queen Cressa runs away with her navy to fight pirates rather than use said navy to confront and arrest the royal council that’s trying to murder her and assume her authority. (Though, as her legitimacy is divinely mandated, one wonders at the absence of religious sentiment and superstition among the nobility and the populace in general.) She sends her daughter into hiding with a rural yeoman family – enchanted to believe the Princess Cerulia is a peasant orphan. Although Queen Cressa is relatively militarily successful, her nation (and her family) has longtime enemies in the form of a country of religious fanatics who blame disease, crop blight and low birth rates on enemy sorcery rather than volcanoes and poor mining practices (heavy metal poisoning is apparently really to blame), known as the Oros, and by the end of A Queen in Hiding, her enemies foreign and domestic have teamed up to kill her, her husband, and a large proportion of her fleet.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the son of a potter, one Thalen by name, becomes a scholar, the Oros invade his homeland and he goes to war, and Cerulia remains in rural seclusion until she’s forced out to have adventures. Over the course of the following books, Thalen conducts war in a frankly implausible manner (the logistics break one’s brain) and Cerulia decides that vengeance means she should join him in wreaking havoc on the Oros’ homeland. It’s clear that Thalen and Cerulia are the main characters of three of the four volumes of this series, but there are a number of other viewpoint characters – some who only appear for a chapter or so, and some who hint at complications and themes that are never quite brought into a satisfactory arc or given adequate development to support a strong narrative through-line.
Two of these viewpoint characters, General Sumroth of the Oros and Regent Matwyck, are essentially the series’ human villains. Matwyck is a self-justifying asshole with ambition, entitlement issues and an empathy deficit: his reason for setting himself up in his monarch’s place is essentially “I deserve it more,” and his ability to make allies and conduct conspiracies – given how essentially shallow he is and how scant his demonstrated ability to judge other people’s motivations – defies belief. Sumroth is also dedicated to the project of self-justification and ambition, though early on there’s a glimmer of a more complicated figure. As the leader of a military force for which rape, torture, slavery and genocide are the normal modes of behavior, he has plenty of scope for self-justification, but his ambition is built on pride and resentment and lacks depth.
Fantasy has long been a genre that approaches questions of war and peace, rulership and legitimacy, right action and moral hazard, gods, destiny, and free will. Kozloff’s Nine Realms series attempts to grapple with these questions, but rarely seems surefooted as it leaps from one to the other and back again, stumbling here and there on the rocks of the odd idiot plot decision or heavy-handed sentiment. Its reaching for depth is confounded by its lack of attention to detail and its eagerness to cram more events in at the cost of emotional resonance and thematic weight. The pacing is deeply peculiar: there’s no particular shape to the narrative, either in individual books or in the series as a whole. Things happen, one after another: is the connective tissue and meaning there? I don’t really feel like it is.
Perhaps I’m disinclined to be charitable this year. But while there are numerous female characters, neither of the two main female characters (Queen Cressa and Princess-later-Queen Cerulia) have many conversations with other women, and those that are shown aren’t about politics, war, danger, or social issues, but largely about relationships with men. There are numerous threats of sexual assault and plenty of rape happening just off screen. And Cerulia makes her allies by accident and godly intervention, not through planning and careful politicking.
There’s potentially a good book here, or a maybe a duology: the tragedy of a queen who lost her throne and the redemption/reclamation narrative of her daughter. You could have a very nice argument about rulership, justice, and the nature of responsibility, deliberately showing the comparisons and contrasts between each woman and their allies and opponents. That doesn’t happen here.
I was holding out hope, right to the end, that Kozloff would do something interesting and finally bring all the threads of the narrative together in a satisfying way. They’re still quite readable books. I’m just left disappointed by how little they actually achieve with their material.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.
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