An Axe For the Frozen Sea – A Review of A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows

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This review is based on an ARC given to me for free by the publisher, Angry Robot Books. This does not in any way affect my review. The book is slated for release on May 2, 2017.

This book is second in a series. Therefore, it may contain references to events in the first book, An Accident of Stars, which may be considered spoilers for said book. Please read An Accident of Stars before reading this review.

I will admit: I am one of those people who reacts emotionally to the books I read. I don’t show such reactions publicly, of course: my poker face has been honed by years and years of reading smutty fan fiction out in the open. But beneath my seemingly-unperturbed expression there is much emotional turbulence: plenty of screaming, arm-flailing, and rapid-fire bilingual cursing. Sometimes those reactions are indicative of a very good read; other times, they are indicative of a very bad one – it really all depends on which buttons the book in question presses. But in the best-case scenario, I am reacting the way I do because I am reading a very good book. In the best best-case scenario, I am reacting to a book that has dug down deep and forced me to break my poker face – to the point that I need to seek the nearest bathroom to use as a hiding place because I am at work and therefore cannot simply lock the door like I would at home and bawl my eyes out.

The latter is precisely what happened – twice, I might add – while I was reading A Tyranny of Queens, the second book in the Manifold Worlds series by Foz Meadows. In the aftermath of the momentous events towards the end of the first book An Accident of Stars, the characters must now face the consequences of their actions. Back in her home world, Saffron Coulter must now face the challenges of her reality: a reality where she cannot tell anyone what has happened to her, lest they think her crazy. Over in Kena, Gwen and her friends and family must now try to figure out where Leoden has gone, as well as try to understand why he did what he did and what he plans to do next. And in Veksh, Yena decides to take a course of action that could help Gwen and the others find the answers they need – or get her killed.

In my review of An Accident of Stars, I commented very favourably on the novel’s worldbuilding, characterisation, and the themes the author tackles. All of those continue to remain the same in A Tyranny of Queens: the characters continue to grow and develop in ways that delight me to no end, even as they face down the challenges brought about by their actions in the previous novel. While Gwen and Saffron are still the main characters of this novel, the others get their own chances to shine: Yena, in particular, develops into a spectacular character in her own right. Amenet, too, is very interesting, though I rather wish she had gotten a bit more screen time. Of the new characters, I am fondest of Naruet, for reasons that I wish I could explain but will leave up to the reader to discover for himself or herself.

The quality of the worldbuilding also remains very high in this novel. Of course, most of it was already accomplished in the first novel, but A Tyranny of Queens sees that world expand to include a few more, as well as become more firmly connected to the plot. This novel sees a lot more world-hopping occur than the previous one, and while none of those new worlds are captured to the same level of detail as Kena, the author still manages to give the reader a good sense of what those other worlds are like without having to delve into them too much.

But what I love most about this novel, though, and which remains the main reason why I love its predecessor so much, is the focus on relationships, and how the quality of those relationships can either make or break a person. Part of the reason why An Accident of Stars was such a pleasure to read is that it showed me what relationships could be: the concept of the mahu’kedet is one I hold close to my heart because it articulates my notion of the ideal family. Throughout the first novel, the reader sees more of the positive, strengthening side of relationships, especially when they are not held back by such limiting notions as blood and gender.

In A Tyranny of Queens, however, things are different. This time the reader gets to see the more negative side of relationships: how even the relationships we think ought to be the most loving, the relationships we hold most sacred, can stifle, and smother, and choke. Two scenes, in particular, utterly gutted me, mostly because they dug up certain personal issues I had managed to bury for years. The first scene is a long one, so I will only quote the section that most affected me:

“This just isn’t like you!” her mother blurted, the words tight with anxiety. “You’ve always been so good, Saff, such a good, kind girl…”

“I am angry,” she choked out. “I am angry, and kind, and good. It’s not a contradiction, but if goodness to you is the absence of anger, then I’m sorry, but I was never good; I only ever pretended. … If you’d known I was always angry before, would you still have called me good? Am I not allowed to feel stronger now?”

Even writing that section now brings a tightness to my throat, because of all the things it means to me, personally. It makes me wish for the same fire that Saffron has in that scene, the same iron hardness to be angry – because of all the emotions a person ought to have, I fear that it is anger that has been snuffed out of me by those who nurtured me, and it has been to my own detriment.

The second scene happens further into the novel, and is much more succinct than the above:

… “I’m proud of you.”

Saffron made a small, involuntary noise at that, and something in Gwen clenched hard as a fist to think that no one else had told her so, when Saffron so clearly deserved and needed to hear it. …

That excerpt, short though it is, dug right down deep and touched a nerve I had buried so long ago I had completely forgotten it existed. Reading this, however, brought back all of the old hurt and all of the memories (or lack thereof, rather) associated with that hurt.

Normally, I would not bring these issues up, since they are quite personal and this review is not the place to deal with them. But I am bringing them up because I want to emphasise how, in my opinion, a good book isn’t always about positive feelings – sometimes, a good book is supposed to cut us deeply and hurt us in doing so, and I do not mean that in the usual fannish way, either. It is rather like surgery: it can hurt, but the relief it brings afterwards is worth the pain. In a letter to Oskar Pollak, Franz Kafka had this to say about the kinds of books a person ought to read (from The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel):

“I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

While I do not agree with Kafka that all books must be like “an axe for the frozen sea within us”, I do agree that books that function in that manner are important. I did not expect A Tyranny of Queens to turn out to be that kind of book for me, and I would still be a very happy reader if it hadn’t, but I love it all the more because it is the metaphorical axe that broke some very deep, very old ice in my internal sea.

Now, all of this is an utter delight, but they are hindered somewhat by this novel’s only flaw: the plot’s rather uneven pacing. I liked the pace of An Accident of Stars, which felt as though it was really taking its time to settle the reader into the world (or worlds, rather), allowing him or her to really get to know the characters and how they work together (or against each other, as the case may be). While other readers might not have appreciated the slowness of pace, I, for my part, particularly enjoyed it. A slow pace is only irritating when the writing is tedious, but since I find the author’s writing to be the farthest thing from tedious, I was quite happy for the writing to linger and for the story to draw itself out – at least until things came to a head in the novel’s latter third.

The same cannot necessarily be said for A Tyranny of Queens. Since most of the worldbuilding has already been done in the first book, I suppose the author chose to focus on a more urgent, action-oriented plot, but what has actually happened is that so much is going on and yet there is not enough time for all of it to sink in and truly develop. While the primary plot is quite well-developed and thought out, with many of its associated twists cropping up in ways that are both sensible and surprising, there were so many other thing going on that I found equally interesting, and yet were not given their time to shine. This tells most on the novel’s ending, which I reached with a certain sense of satisfaction, but also a kind of yearning, because I felt like there could have been so much more to the novel than what I got in the end. Simply put, I wish this novel had been longer, with that same sense of loving lingering I got from the first book. I honestly would not have minded several more pages of story, if it meant that the ending would feel fuller than it does now.

Overall, A Tyranny of Queens is an excellent continuation of the story begun in An Accident of Stars: the characters and the world are all as wonderful as they were in the first book, with other characters taking central roles and more worlds being explored – perhaps not to the same level of detail as Kena, but with enough depth to make them feel alive. However, that glow is dimmed somewhat by a rather disorganised plot – disorganised in the sense that there are many threads that are left unaddressed. Despite that, however, the book remains eminently readable, and I hope that this is not the last we see of Safi, Gwen, and everyone else across all the worlds, because I would really like to see and read more about them and their adventures.

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