A good fantasy series can potentially go on forever. Series like the The Wheel of Time or The Dresden Files easily tell a dozen books worth of story. However, a great fantasy series knows it’s ending, even if takes a while to get there. Jim Butcher has stated he knows the ending for The Dresden Files and how many books the series will contain. The reader can see that the story is leading somewhere definite. Even if the ending suggested in book one is now the ending for the entire series, it still suggests a finality. Jennifer Estep’s Crown of Shards series is only two books in, but we already have a sense of where the ultimate plot is going. Machinations have already begun and there is a clear-long term villain. Ultimately, it is always possible for a series to arrive at its first ending, and realize there is more story to tell. With great fantasy, there is a sea of endless possibility that allows characters to develop and keep the plot always interesting.
Estep’s first novel in the Crown of Shards series, Kill the Queen, introduced readers to the setting, characters, and plot threads moving forward. Lady Everleigh “Evie” Saffira Winter Blair was the only survivor of the royal family following a massacre in their own palace, orchestrated by her murderous cousin Vasilia. Vasilia wanted the crown for herself and worked with a spy from an enemy nation to take control, killing her own mother along the way. Evie, formerly 17th in line to the throne, suddenly found herself only one step away. If she could survive. After the massacre, she is able to escape out into the city, disguising herself as a commoner, and falls in with a gladiator troupe. While there, she learns how to fight and makes close friends. With their help, she is able to infiltrate the palace and challenge her cousin to single combat, killing her and taking the throne for herself. Queen Everleigh ends the novel becoming the newest queen of her nation.
Protect the Prince opens with Queen Everleigh only several months into her reign, with most of that time spent consolidating her power and household. The novel opens with her attempting to corral the nobles in her first open court session, where the nobles who once served the previous two queens vie for her attention and look for any signs of weakness they can exploit. This early chapter very much feels like watching a caged tiger cope with a crowd outside, all trying to find the best ways to tame it. During this court session, Evie is able to foil an assassination attempt on herself and use the opportunity as a show of force to her kingdom. The remainder of the novel follows her diplomatic trip to neighboring country Andvari, who were falsely blamed for the massacre in the previous book. Unfortunately, more intrigue awaits and Evie quickly learns about the Bastard Brigade, a legion of spies and assassins with a mission to destroy her. They are willing to use any means necessary, including trying to kill the Andvari prince and start a war between their two nations. Evie must not only protect herself, but the crown prince if she wants to secure her alliance.
As Protect the Prince is written in the first-person point-of-view of Evie, Estep is able to show all of her emotions while navigating her newfound rule. The Evie we met in the first novel was a little quieter, studious, but always watching. Although she was never at the forefront of royal politics, Evie was always learning from the people around her, who never seemed to notice. They always dismissed her as unimportant, as did Evie for some time. But she is good at playing the long game, and reveals early on that she remembers everything; every slight and every kindness. Due to events she experienced, Estep reveals a deep well of righteous anger just beneath the surface. She never lets this anger take total control or threaten her work, instead tempering it and using it as a tool to move forward. As queen, she is able to show strength without cruelty, although there is a slight desire to be cruel to her enemies. For her, tempered anger is another weapon to give yourself an advantage over your rivals.
Protect the Prince is not all action and intrigue. Like all great fantasy series, there is also romance. Introduced in the first novel, Lucas “Sully” Sullivan is the bastard of the Andvari king and worked in the gladiator troupe as their on-staff magician. Capable of throwing extremely powerful lightning without much effort and harboring a deep rage and insecurity, Sullivan is a force to be reckoned with. Initially cold, he and Evie became steadily closer throughout the first novel, until he learned of her true identity. At the beginning on book two, their relationship is once again fraught. As a bastard, Sullivan knows he can never marry the queen. It would be a political scandal, weakening both his home kingdom and Evie’s reign. It is clear that Evie loves him dearly, and Sullivan has demonstrated a similar intense love for her, although neither seem willing to admit the depth of their care for the other. Their love becomes frayed and strained throughout this book, even as Evie knows she may have to hurt him to save everyone.
Estep created a unique system of magic in the first novel, and she expands upon it here. Magic uses seems split into four categories. There are the magiers, capable of controlling the elements in combat. Sullivan is one such, capable of throwing lightning, but others can control fire, cold, and wind. Masters show complete mastery over a certain element of nature, such as plants or minerals. These are more utilitarian, as we meet a plant master capable of creating multitudes of products and tools from various plants and flowers. Shifters draw their power from a connection to a beast, such as an ogre or dragon. It is unclear as of yet if they can actually transform into these beings, or just draw power from this connection. Everyone else is a mutt. They can be strong, fast, have a good nose, or some other power that does not neatly fit into the main categories. Evie, despite her royal heritage, is a unique mutt, capable of utterly cancelling out others magic. She also has a supernatural sense of smell, capable of even determining the emotions of those around her. Protect the Prince introduces a few ideas suggesting the people of this world do not fully understand the magic they wield.
While fantasy and other so-called genres will never be considered high fantasy, Protect the Prince proves that fun fantasy be oftentimes be more entertaining than the most literary of novels. These novels have a clear sense of their plot and characters, and demonstrate an imaginative writing not always found elsewhere. With a few words, Estep has created an entire world, full of nations and unique people. This is type of novel that makes you forget you are reading a book, projecting imagery directly into your head and you move from page to page. The next book in the series is titled Crush the King, and it can be certain that it will just as, if not more, entertaining that what has come before.
Protect the Prince can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 4 days
Next on the List: The Iron Dragon’s Mother, by Michael Swanwick