Spycraft and Romance: A Review of Capture the Crown, by Jennifer Estep

There is an art to be found when crafting a sequel, a careful balance to be struck, which I talked about in several opening paragraphs in other reviews.  When it comes to creating not just a sequel, but a sequel series, however, that requires a completely different skillset and outlook.  Sometimes, after a series has concluded the story it wished to tell, there is room for additional stories.  Many authors will shift focus to a different character or a different region of their world entirely.  Often, the writer employs a time jump, catching up to characters and worlds many years after the original ending.  When writing a sequel series, a careful balance must be struck; a balance between retaining old readers and drawing in new ones.  Tip that balance, and you risk alienating one or both of these groups.  For the perfect example, look no farther than the Star Wars sequel trilogy.  The first movie, The Force Awakens, achieved this balance easily, introducing new characters and keeping one or two old ones.  However, the final movie, The Rise of Skywalker, wrapped itself in misplace nostalgia to everyone’s detriment, creating a finale that satisfied no one.  The balance was not maintained.

But today’s review is not about Star Wars, but the work of excellent author Jennifer Estep.  From 2018 to 2020, Estep wrote the fantasy Crown of Shards trilogy, consisting of Kill the Queen, Protect the Prince, and Crush the King, all three of which I have read and reviewed previously.  With that series, Estep created a new fantastical world, populating it with interesting characters, and told the story she wanted to tell.  By the time the final book concluding, Estep had wrapped up the main plot of the trilogy, not leaving any loose ends, while still allowing for the possibility of more stories in this world.  In my review of Crush the King, I actually wrote that the story still felt somewhat incomplete, as if Estep had more ideas.  Turns out, I was only partially correct.  In her latest novel, Capture the Crown, the first novel in the Gargoyle Queen series, Estep returns to this same world, sending readers fifteen years into the future, and reintroduces us to our new heroine.  After finishing the book, I can confirm that Estep has struck the balance required of a sequel series wonderfully.  There are callbacks and returning characters, but the story stands alone and atop its own merit.

To set the stage for both new and returning readers alike, Estep’s series takes place in a fantasy world consisting of several kingdoms.  Her previous trilogy centered around Bellona, a nation boasting a matriarchy and a strong gladiator tradition.  This new series shifts the focus to neighboring Andvari, known for its mines and population of gargoyles, who have a particularly strong affinity for the Andvari royal family. Opposing these, and nearly all, nations is the northernmost kingdom of Morta.  One of the true joys of reading this series is also reading the extensive names of the Mortan royal family.  Fifteen years prior, during the original trilogy’s events, Morta assisted a coup in Bellona and arranged the Seven Spires Massacre, killing all but one of that kingdom’s royal family.  Evie, the heroine, eventually took back her kingdom, becoming queen, and was able to unify her allies and push back against Morta before all-out war erupted.  Now, the world is in a state of cold war.  Now, our new heroine, Princess Gemma of Andvari, another survivor of the Seven Spires Massacre, takes it upon herself to unravel a conspiracy that takes her deep into the inner workings of the Mortan royal family.

The plot of Capture the Crown revolves around the tearstone, a mineral invented by Estep as part of the system of magic present in these books.  Magic is ubiquitous and seems to be present in every person in the world to varying degrees.  Tearstone specifically interacts with magic in a number of ways, usually storing it for later use or deflecting it during battle.  It is incredibly valuable, and much of it comes from the mines controlled by the kingdom of Andvari.  As the novel opens, we learn that tearstone in and around the kingdom has been going missing, either misplaced or destroyed during unrelated events.  Gemma, however, believes the mineral is being stolen by Morta for an unknown purpose, and resolves to go undercover in a remote tearstone mine near the border to learn more.  Reports of corruption made it out of the mine, but Gemma quickly learns that the whistleblower met an untimely end when a chasm opened up underneath her.  However, the action quickly escalates when it is quickly confirmed Morta is behind the thefts, and a miscalculation results in Gemma thrown down that same chasm and left for dead.  Enter Prince Leo of Morta, whom Gemma rescues early on.  Leo is an enigma throughout the story, his true motives never know, but he kickstarts the plot by bringing Gemma to the Mortan capital under a false name for two reasons.  One, to help him investigate the plot; and two, to show her that Morta is not a nation exclusively populated by villains.

In the world of the novel, Gemma is known as a mind magier.  Someone with magical prowess resembling both telekinesis and telepathy.  Gemma’s ability to read people’s minds is a constant plot point throughout the novel in that she cannot keep other peoples’ thoughts out of her head.  During battle, we also see her using her mind to life and throw people across a room with enough force to kill them.  However, Gemma is the type of character who is afraid of her own power.  It controls her, not the other way around, for most of the book.  Gemma is an incredibly interesting character for many reasons, but the people of her world mostly know her as “Glitzma,” the incredibly pampered and spoiled royal princess known for loving parties, being ditzy, and just generally being fun.  In reality, Gemma is a spy for her country, and a pretty good one at that.  She also suffers from a tremendous amount of PTSD and survivor’s guilt resulting from the Seven Spires Massacre and her flight back home.  Despite being scarcely more than a child, she blames herself for not helping anyone, even though she, and we, know that there was little she could have done.  Like many people in the real world who suffer from these afflictions, Gemma experiences the occasional flashback to the traumatizing event whenever certain triggers are met, and her personality immediately makes sense once you realize that all her decision making is filtered through a lens of “how can I be useful here?”  As a main character, she is relatable to anyone who has ever felt like they are useless to the people around them.

Capture the Crown is not entirely full of doom and gloom, however.  Like Estep’s previous trilogy, there is a healthy amount of romance swirling around the center of the plot, as well as some juicy and voyeuristic sexposition scenes during a royal party in the Mortan capital.  The main romance is centered on Gemma and Leo, and it does include some tropes involving lovers on opposite sides of a conflict.  However, while most characters would work to find love despite this, or use it as a unifying force, Gemma always puts her country force.  Several times, Gemma refers to her “traitorous heart” as she years for a connection with Leo.  But she never allows herself, and the reader, to forget exactly why the Mortans are so mistrusted.  Leo’s affiliations and motivations can never be trusted.  Even when he appears to be completely genuine in the story, there really is no way to know if he has an ulterior motive.  That is just the nature of spycraft.  However, it is clear that the two characters do have a genuine attraction to one another, and sparks definitely fly more than once. While it is certainly possible that future novels will allow them to be together, a greater twist would see Gemma reject Leo to protect her home, and the rest of the world, from Morta.

Overall, Capture the Crown is a tremendously fun read for both new and returning readers alike.  There are enough callbacks and returning characters to keep returning readers engaged, but they are filtered throughout a brand-new lens for those who are coming into the series fresh.  Also, the previous heroine, Evie, does not make an appearance in this novel, a wise choice by Estep to ensure that we are not too distracted by our former protagonist and keep our attention on Gemma and her adventures.  The romance aspect does contain some known tropes and the expected spicy scenes, but they are always tempered by Gemma and Leo’s duty to their respective countries.  More than anything, however, Estep proves that continues to perfect her craft by demonstrating a new take on her old villains.  While we see the return of a villain from the previous trilogy, Capture the Crown continues to flesh her out, while also introducing us to Morta and demonstrating that it is not a nation populated exclusively by villains.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this book and look forward to the continuation of Gemma’s story in the sequel.

Capture the Crown can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 14 days

Next on the List: Goodbye Battle Princess Peony, by Mira Ong Chua

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