Courtly Manners: A Review of The Frozen Crown, by Greta Kelly

Not every novel needs to be a masterpiece.  Most books will not become the next great American novel, or spawn a never-ending franchise, or elicit well-reasoned think pieces and critical analysis.  Most are written, and read, for pure entertainment.  More often than not, these are the books that I prefer to read.  Books that do not require you to think about them too hard, but draw you in with well-told, interesting stories and entertaining characters.  The literary equivalent of a popcorn movie.  And it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy these stories for what they are.  No reader should ever be judged for choosing to read something for fun, or to escape from reality for a few days to weeks.  In the middle of a global pandemic, this sort of escapism can be more important than ever.  However, just because a book is meant for pure entertainment does not mean that the construction should always be overlooked.

The Frozen Crown is the debut novel of Greta Kelly and the first of her Warrior Witch duology.  As fun as this book can be, it cannot be mistaken for a masterpiece.  This is a fantasy novel meant purely to entertain and occasionally titillate, and falls neatly into an archetype of modern fantasy fiction.  It is told from the first-person point-of-view of the main heroine, a princess who was raised as a commoner, who fell into royalty rather than being raised in it.  It features other princes, princesses, emperors, and queens who live and breathe the royal life, setting them at odds with our main character.  There is magic with ill-defined rules, but with just enough varying terminology to set it apart from other fantasy worlds.  Still, it is not so different as to be unrecognizable from other fantasy fiction.  The main plot has to do with stopping a war, and only the main character can find the solution while navigating through pointless political intrigue.  There is the requisite forbidden romance between our princess and a commoner, although this plot is not given enough time or words to warrant its focus.  The Frozen Crown is certainly a fun read, as long as you do not pay too much attention to the book.  For, once you start to focus, the endless cracks become increasingly apparent. 

The Frozen Crown follows Askia, the princess and leader of the kingdom of Seravesh, a harsh norther kingdom clearly influences by Eastern Europe, particularly Russia.  Before the start of the novel, her kingdom was invaded by the large Roven Empire, which controls nearly the entire rest of the continent aside from Seravesh and another free state.  Across the sea to the south lies a second continent, completely controlled by the Vishir Empire, likely influenced by the Mughal Empire.  We learn at the start of the novel that Seravesh is losing their war, and badly.  Askia and her troops essentially wage guerilla warfare, while Roven occasionally slaughters entire cities just to send a message.  Right away, Kelly sets the stakes and sets up Askia on a journey to Vishir to secure an alliance in an attempt to have them intervene in the war on Seravesh’s behalf.  However, rather than asking them to intervene diplomatically or help negotiate a peace, she travels with the express purpose of obtaining their army and having the two empires go to war to save her kingdom.  Askia is set up as a warrior, a princess who fights alongside her army, and immediately encounters the rampant sexism and bigotry in Vishir once she arrives at court.  We also quickly learn that Askia is a witch, capable of seeing ghosts and, something she hides from all as most witches face persecution in this world.

Right away, the novel runs into trouble with presenting Seravesh and the central conflict of the story.  At no point do we actually see Askia’s county.  On page one, she is already in a neighboring nation, having left her own country to begin her travel to Vishir.  We are told through narration and some dialogue about what is happening to her home, but we never actually see it on the page.  We are told about various atrocities, and Askia has the narratively appropriate reaction, but there is something hollow about the presentation.  Since we never see the people of Seravesh before the war, it is difficult to sympathize with their plight.  They are faceless and nameless.  We hear about how much Askia loves her country, but she never talks about anyone she cares for there.  There are no moments where she grieves for a particular person, or laments leaving someone behind.  It is a suitably dramatic backstory, but nothing more.  This trouble extends into the plot itself.  Just like the reader, Vishir is expected to sympathize with the plight of this nation shrouded in narrative fog.  Askia arrives in a foreign country, holding no diplomatic ties, trade agreements, or treaties with them and expects to be given an army, to have them sacrifice men to save faceless people across the sea.  On top of this, we never see Vishir once she arrives.  The entire plot is relegated to the palace once Askia arrives.

Magic ends up playing a central role in the plot of The Frozen Crown and, as evidence by the title of the duology, Warrior Witch, will absolutely be involved with the final conflict and resolution of the second novel.  Despite this, how magic works is fairly ill-defined in the book and we hardly see it being used.  Part of this is the plot setting up how secret it supposedly is, but even that presentation is inconsistent.  The queen of Vishir seems very disappointed that Askia publicly denies being a witch, but we are told about how witches face persecution.  One would think secrecy should be paramount.  One thing we do know is that, in the world of the book, magic is hereditary.  You are either born with it in your blood, or you do not have it at all.  In this world, there is now way to learn magic.  This is something we have seen in many other stories, and it will never feel a little strange and bordering on eugenics in any context.  As the plot progresses, there are a few twists concerning magic, however, as we do not have a clearer understanding of the rules of magic, they do not hold the wait Kelly thinks they should.  The characters react in shock at a certain revelation, but to readers, everything is fair game.

Most of the action in The Frozen Crown revolves around the political intrigue and palace etiquette in Vishir.  However, this is where the cracks in the story are the most apparent.  The entire situation collapses once the smallest amount of critical thinking is applied.  Askia is a foreign dignitary.  More than that, she is a visiting head of state of a separate nation, a queen in all but name.  Despite this, she is never afforced the treatment befitting a leader of a foreign country.  Imagine if the Prime Minister of Japan visited the United States, and found themselves subject to our most obscure traditions, with absolutely no mind paid to their cultural norms.  Askai is expected to have intimate knowledge of how life at the Vishiri palace operates, and is expected to completely conform to their behavioral standards.  Behavioral standards which are inherently misogynist in nearly every way.  It would be like President Biden refusing to treat Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, as an equal in any way.  From the minute Askai enters Vishir, they treat her like a vassal, and she is immediately roped into a political plot against her will, without given the choice.  Even though her country is in peril, Askia does not need to be treated the way she is by Vishir.  This is a conscious choice made by the author.  Without spoiling too much, the way in which she is told she can secure her army also does not hold up to scrutiny.  Rather than negotiating a treaty, trade agreement, or any political document, Askia is told repeatedly than her only choice is to marry into Vishir.  It would be one thing if the characters said this, but the plot found a more reasonable solution, but the idea seems ingrained into the book as well.  Askia is told, and seems to accept, that the only valuable thing about her is marriageability.  And, in Vishir, her subservience to her husband.

The Frozen Crown, like many books unfortunately, is fun to read in the moment, as long as you do not think about it too hard.  However, once you take a step back to really look at the book, the problems become increasingly apparent.  The façade shatters in the face of even the smallest amount of critical thinking.  Just as not every story needs to be a masterpiece, not everything meant for pure entertainment should be immune from striving for greatness.  Even if you just want your readers to enjoy the ride, we will enjoy it more if the author truly puts in the thought to craft a good story.  Unfortunately, I cannot recommend The Frozen Crown, unless you are looking for a quick read in between the more engrossing novels.  Otherwise, this is a novel to, sadly, skip.

The Frozen Crown can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 4 days

Next on the List: The Burning God, by R. F. Kuang

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