The Gauntlet: A Review of Tear Down the Throne, by Jennifer Estep

            Romance is one of the oldest genres in the literary world, and remains one of the largest areas of publication, with multitudes of readers and books being published every year.  Romance is one of those genres that can be combined with so many others, resulting in some extremely creative and unique styles of writing.  While many books include romance, to call a book a romance is something completely different.  There may be a plot, but the main tension is a result of the story revolves around the love lives of the main characters.  By blending romance with a setting theme, such as fantasy, authors can create some fun combinations, brainstorming new romantic traditions and customs for their characters to engage with.  There is also something inherently romantic about using a fantasy setting, especially one with real world influences throughout history.  The idea of star-crossed lovers is extraordinarily popular, and what easier way to set that up than by pairing royalty from two enemy kingdoms?

            Tear Down the Throne is the second novel in Jennifer Estep’s fun Gargoyle Queen series, which itself is a sequel series to her excellent Crown of Shards trilogy.  The two series share a setting and many characters, although the Gargoyle Queen saga takes place several years after the first collection of books, featuring a new point-of-view character, now an adult after we met her as a child/pre-teen.  These novels are told in the first-person narrative, meaning that we spend every page within the head of our main character, seeing events through her eyes and connecting to her every innermost thought.  Following the first and previous book in the series, Capture the Crown, this novel follows the adventure of Princess Gemma Ripley of the kingdom of Andvari, in a setting rife with magic and magical beasts.  Gemma is known as a mind magier, meaning she has a combination of telepathic and telekinetic abilities.  Fitting with the theme of her powers, Gemma is a very introspective character, turning things over in her mind constantly and trying to think before she acts.  The plot continues from the first book, with tensions high between Andvari and the neighboring kingdom of Morta.  The queen of Morta, a cunning enemy in the original trilogy, is nevertheless less of a threat this time around as the crown prince, her oldest son, conspires to conquer the continent.

            This book is a fantasy novel, with dashes of adventure, action, and intrigue from a central mystery and plenty of spy craft.  However, it is above all else, a romance.  The plot, which involves conflict between royal houses hidden behind the strict rules of civility, is entertaining on its own, with plenty of clues to help solve its mystery and rich character development.  However, the heart of the novel stems from Gemma herself, and the one who she holds in her heart.  Prince Leonidas Morricone is the son of Queen Maeven of Morta and, on paper, a sworn enemy of Gemma’s home kingdom.  The previous book established their mutual attraction, while also demonstrating how Leonidas was still dedicated to his home.  Through flashbacks, we also see the two meeting as children while Gemma fled a massacre which took place in the first Crown of Shards novel.  Fresh off a betrayal which ended Capture the Crown, Gemma has been unable to shake her attraction for Leonidas, and spends much of the novel trying to rationalize herself out of the situation.  From her conversations with Leonidas, and telepathic connection, we know that his love for her is real and, despite the difficulties, he is dedicated to earning her trust.  Thus, the central conflict of the book is less about the plot, and more about how these two can find a way to trust each other and make this relationship work.

            The plot and conflict in Tear Down the Throne centers around the Summit, a meeting of several kingdoms, including Andvari and Morta.  A time to put aside conflicts, meet with the other royals, and hammer out new trade deals and relationships.  This time, however, Maeven comes with a plan.  Having apparently done her research into the Summit, Maeven calls for the Gauntlet, volunteering Leonidas.  A series of challenges to test him in multiple ways.  If he fails at any point, he will be executed.  But, should he succeed, he and Gemma will become engaged.  By this point, Estep has trained readers to distrust any plan Maeven comes up with, and the main characters have also learned this same lesson.  Right from the start, Gemma is busy trying to find ways to thwart the queen’s plans, while also investigating plots against her and Leonidas, and also trying to uncover Maeven’s motivations in this.  It is assumed that the engagement must hurt Andvari in some way, but the engagement is also something Leonidas wants for his love of Gemma.  Maeven herself is a very interesting character, because she is certainly brutal, but she genuinely adores her children, Leonidas and his sister Delmira.  Invoking the Gauntlet is certainly meant to gain her something, but it is also clear that she does want Leonidas to be happy, and Gemma makes him happy.

            In the background of the Gauntlet challenge, the villain from Capture the Crown makes a return here.  Milo Morricone is the crown prince of Morta, Maeven’s oldest son, and the sibling of Leonidas and Delmira.  While those two are considerate and kind, thinking about more than themselves, Milo is horrific.  A sadist at heart, he wants nothing more than to conquer the continent in the most brutal way possible.  In the last book, he experimented with a new type of crossbow bolts which channeled magic into the people they struck, not necessarily making killing more efficient, but certainly crueler.  This time, Milo is seemingly continuing his experiments with the bolts, while also researching uses for a flower which Gemma finds early in the story.  While she attempts to investigate his latest plot, he also takes the opportunity presented by the Gauntlet to attempt to assassinate both Gemma and Leonidas.  Milo is again joined by several co-conspirators, including captain of the guard Wexel, and the daughter of his previous sponsor, Corvina.  Milo is an interesting villain for a few reasons, one of which is that he is rarely the smartest person in the room.  He is somewhat creative when it comes to cruelty, but struggles to come up with good plans.  His co-conspirators work with him to further their own agendas, playing to his ego while making use of his ambition.  He is both incredibly dangerous, and not particularly competent, a rare combination for literary villains.  While he has so far been presented as the main villain, it is always possible that the next novel will reveal someone else pulling the strings.

            Aside from the romance between Gemma and Leonidas, another incredibly important relationship to Tear Down the Throne is the friendship between Gemma and Reiko.  Reiko is a spy from the allied kingdom of Ryusama, who met Gemma in the previous book, and works with the crown princess to uncover the secret plots of Morta.  More than just coworkers, however, Gemma and Reiko are extremely close friends.  She is all over this book, appearing as a regular character throughout, and one of the people Gemma spends the most time with.  In both books, she is integral to the plot and Gemma’s journeys of self-discovery, acting as a friend and confidant.  Likewise, Gemma is there for Reiko, standing by her during difficult encounters with Reiko’s father and former crush.  Even when obstacles to their friendship appear, they are quickly moved out of the way.  The potential of an engagement between Gemma and Leonidas irks most of the royals in attendance at the Summit, and Reiko’s allegiance to Ryusama does cause understandable friction.  But Estep’s novels have been very clear to prioritize friendships and interpersonal relationships over political obligations, ensuring that Reiko and Gemma will find a way to come together again.

            With the release of Tear Down the Throne, it is possible that there is only one more novel remaining in the Gargoyle Queen series.  The Crown of Shards series was published as a trilogy, so it seems likely that the same will hold true here.  However, it is possible that Estep may wish to continue the story of Gemma Ripley past the next novel, Conquer the Kingdom, which would certainly be welcome.  The conclusion of the Crown of Shards trilogy felt like the story was not complete, even though it was for that main character, and Estep proved that feeling correct when she began the Gargoyle Queen series.  While it would be understandable for her to want to wrap it up with the next book, this is a wonderful setting with interesting characters, and more stories set here would certainly be welcome.  Maybe that means continuing the life of Gemma Ripley, or a brand-new trilogy with a new heroine.  Whatever the case may be, our time with these characters has been nothing less than fun.

Tear Down the Throne can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 8 days

Next on the List: Never the Wind, by Francesco Dimitri

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