Prisoner of the Crown
Jeffe Kennedy offers an exciting new look at the world she created in her Twelve Kingdoms and Uncharted Realms series with Prisoner of the Crown. The opening tale in the trilogy about the lost princess of Dasnaria, this is one of the best books in this fantasy saga. It is a standalone novel, so you don’t have to read the other books to enjoy this one.
On the surface, Imperial Princess Jenna, daughter of the Emperor of Dasnaria, has an opulent, pampered life. In the seraglio, her every desire is met instantly by a servant, her every need taken care of. Look closer, though, and you will see a woman trained in the arts of pain, poison and secrets. Jenna is not simply a pretty ornament meant to be a powerful man’s bride; she is a cleverly disguised dagger her mother intends to aim straight at the heart of the Emperor’s power. Or so Jenna has been raised to believe
When Jenna’s betrothal day finally comes, she walks into the wider world of the grand palace with wonder and confidence. She is aware of her own beauty and grace, and is certain her mother’s machinations have borne fruit and will give her the husband of their dreams. When she meets the old, rather repugnant king she is to wed, Jenna is disheartened. She has been trained in the arts of pleasing a man and knows just what she’ll have to do with this person who so repulses her. Her mother assures her this is all necessary to her grand plan to place Jenna’s brother – the second born son – on the throne. Jenna resigns herself to her marriage and enters her bridal bower determined to please. She leaves it broken, bloodied, bruised and horrified.
Her husband gets off on pain. He can only take her after inflicting blows, bruises, pinches and degradations which make the beatings Jenna took at her mother’s hand seem like child’s play. Each day Jenna must be drugged in order to manage her physical agony. And this is only the honeymoon phase, while she is still within her father’s palace! Fearing she is headed to her death when she begins the journey to her new home, she finds instead an unlikely ally in her young half-brother Harlan and, with his help, she discovers the dream of an unhoped-for freedom.
Readers of Ms. Kennedy’s previous two series will recognize many of the players in this narrative. Harlan and Jenna’s brother Kral are both heroes from earlier novels and we met Jenna’s sisters in a previous story as well. However, since the focus of this book is on Jenna, a character whom we have only ever heard about, and the story takes place in Dasnaria, which we have only briefly visited before, this book is easy to read as a standalone. Since it contains prequel information only, it also won’t spoil the other tales in any way.
This is a fantasy novel, rather than fantasy romance as the other books are, so that is another difference. Here, the emphasis is on Jenna, her personal journey and examining the world in which she lives, and that works, because Jenna is the perfect character to grant us entry into this realm. She believes in the system and has rarely chafed under the limitations of a woman’s life in the seraglio. She accepts, almost from the beginning, not being allowed to read or write, learn math or geography or other things about the greater world. Sure, she has a child’s initial curiosity to see, learn and do more but she comes to be satisfied with the life she has been given and to acknowledge an alternative type of learning and route to power. She doesn’t waiver from that path till she is beaten off of it. I think I appreciated that so much because most people are average and accept society as it is. Such a character makes a good introduction to a new culture because they see both the good and bad in it.
Unlike Jenna, Harlan rejects the system they have been born in to; he has seen firsthand what it takes to gain power in Dasnaria and has determined he wants none of it. In this tale he is young and has not yet acquired the strength and skill to become a truly great warrior, but that is made up for by his compassion and courage. He is the only one to care and take action when Jenna is being beaten to death with her family’s full knowledge.
Ms. Kennedy always writes unique and interesting worlds, even if she never seems quite able to bring the full concept of them to fruition. In this case, Dasnaria, depicted as a seasonal kingdom with winters cold enough to freeze lakes, and buildings made of stone, would most likely resemble somewhere like Germany or one of the Nordic countries. Introducing the seraglio, a uniquely Middle Eastern and Mediterranean concept, is an original approach and provides an intriguing twist to a common fantasy construct.
The conflict portion of the tale revolves around Jenna’s desire to break free of a horrific situation. There are allusions to what is going on in the greater world – the schemes for the throne for example – but the focus stays on Jenna leaving behind all she ever knew just for the chance of survival. It’s a shortened version of what most abused women go through in gaining their freedom, but it is a powerful reminder that this type of situation exists the world over and deserves more attention than it gets.
So, the story is engaging, filled with great characters and has an interesting conflict. Had this been a fantasy romance with a great hero meeting Jenna along the way, it would have been a DIK. But this is a straight fantasy novel, and for that genre the story is a bit weak. The conflict isn’t epic, and the world building is incomplete and requires clarification to explain some of its more discordant elements such as sari-like costumes being worn in a deep, icy winter.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading Prisoner of the Crown as the start of a romance fantasy series and I think fans of Ms. Kennedy will feel likewise. While this book in no way provides any sort of pay off and is very clearly book one of a saga, I think it makes a nice edition to the author’s Twelve Kingdoms collection.