Last week I recommended Jennifer Niven’s new book All the Bright Places. This week I will highlight my favorite young adult fantasy novels published this month: Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen (out today) and Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater’s Daughter (out 2/24).
These debut novels, the first of planned trilogies, have everything I look for in great fantasy. Their heroines are strong, yet conflicted, as they fight against a formidable villain (or villains). Each narrative is thrilling and suspenseful, full of surprising twists and turns, and takes place in a precarious world of magical powers, royal intrigue, power struggles, rebellion, betrayal, and complicated romance. More importantly, Red Queen and The Sin Eater’s Daughter rejuvenate fantasy’s familiar themes, which risk being clichéd, and their characters, storylines and worlds are creative, unique and intricate.
RED QUEEN Told in first-person narrative, this book instantly drew me into 17-year-old Mare’s dangerous world, and I had a strong sense of characters, setting and conflict from the beginning.
Red Queen opens with Mare picking pockets in the muddy, overcrowded and overheated village called The Stilts, where the disadvantaged Reds reside. It’s First Friday—which she hates—and she, along with other Reds, must go to the arena to watch the privileged Silvers demonstrate their superhuman abilities in fierce competition. The kingdom of Norta is divided by red blood and silver blood: the Silvers (and the royal family in particular), with their supernatural powers and wealth, rule over the Reds. Norta has also been in an endless war with the bordering Lakelands, and the Reds, of course, are the first to die in the trenches.
At first, Mare’s biggest challenge is stealing enough money to be smuggled somewhere safe from the Silvers, so she and her best friend won’t be sent off to war. But her difficulties escalate when she receives a royal summons. Fortunately, she is not arrested like she feared, but she is taken to the royal palace to serve the Silvers during a special occasion, the Queenstrial: noble daughters compete to become the next queen. As the contestants try to prove the superiority of their powers to the crown prince, Mare is drawn into their dangerous game. After a surprising discovery she becomes further enmeshed with the royal Silvers and the Red rebellion. Whom should she trust? What will she fight for?
THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER This book’s beautiful cover and enticing premise immediately caught my attention. But, as we all know, not every book is as good as its jacket—fortunately, in this case, it is even better.
The Sin Eater’s Daughter combines many familiar elements from fantasy and folklore to tell a unique story. Seventeen-year-old Twylla’s life seems ideal and reads like a myth or fairy tale. As a goddess embodied, she has superhuman powers, lives in a castle and is engaged to a handsome prince. A few years earlier, she was happy to escape her fate as the Sin Eater’s daughter when she was summoned to court. (Through ritual meals, her mother consumes the recently deceased’s sins so they will rest in peace). But now her destiny is even more difficult than being the next Sin Eater.
Twylla is at the mercy of a tyrannical queen who has made her the royal executioner. Each month, as Daunen Embodied (the reborn daughter of the two gods who rule the world), she must lay her hands on those the queen has accused of treason—even people she cares about—and offer them the blessings of the gods. She tells those who will die from her fatal touch that they will be absolved of their sins eventually; but everyone knows that people whose sins are not eaten are damned, regardless of the blessing.
To touch Twylla’s poisonous skin is fatal to nearly everyone; only people with royal blood are immune. But even though she and the prince could be intimate, their relationship is distant and confusing. She is lonely and alienated—that is, until she is assigned a new guard who should fear her fatal touch as much as anyone but doesn’t; instead he believes in her humanity. Yes, what follows is somewhat of a love triangle, which I know can annoy readers (including me). But Twylla’s tricky situation of being betrothed to the prince while she falls in love with her guard is not a typical love triangle, and there are many surprises and uncertainties. Royal intrigue and family drama further complicate life at court, making it difficult to know whom to trust. Will Twylla ever escape her fate? Will she find true love?
COMPARABLE READS Red Queen and The Sin Eater’s Daughter are great choices for fans of the Throne of Glass series and Graceling Realm books. You may also draw similarities to other popular titles (The Hunger Games, The Selection, Divergent, Shatter Me, and Game of Thrones). While there’s nothing wrong with making such comparisons, I hope you will recognize how inventive and complex each book is in its own right. Happy reading!
Alyssa Raymond loves to read, review and collect books—thanks to her many years as a bookseller at the Boulder Book Store. She can’t wait to share with you her favorite new releases. She thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and the publishers for providing her with advanced readers copies in exchange for her honest reviews. You can find her on twitter @acrbks.