I’ve had some occasional exposure to Jeffe Kennedy’s work through fantasy anthologies, but this is the first full-length book I’ve read. Judging by how well The Orchid Throne turned out, I have a new fantasy author to add to my TBR shelf.
Sixteen years earlier, a despot rose to power in the kingdom of Ackis. Using a dynamite-like material called vurgsten, he proceeded to conquer all neighboring kingdoms, enslaving their people in his vurgsten mines and amassing great wealth for himself. The world changed as Emperor Anure rose to power; lives were lost and magical heritages forgotten as one land after another fell to Anure. Two people who grew up amidst this turmoil were Lia and Conrí, Princess of Calanthe and Prince of Oriel respectively. They come from different kingdoms and have walked very different paths, but The Orchid Throne brings the two together on a path toward marriage and a shared destiny.
Conrí, like many other people in the defeated kingdoms, was sent to the vurgsten mines when Anure took control. His father fought hard to keep Oriel independent, but only delayed the inevitable. As a child in the mines, Conrí grew up amidst ash and bitterness. Vurgsten is a toxic substance when burned, so every miner suffered a scarred throat and weathered skin, in addition to brutal treatment by the overseers. After watching his friends and eventually, his father, die from the brutal conditions, Conrí built up enough rage to fight back. He formed an army with the other slaves, and together they retook control of the mines and started a rebellion. When the book opens, Conrí has had a taste of success and is making plans to overthrow the emperor.
Lia’s goals are in direct opposition to Conrí’s. Unlike all the other royals, her father, King Gul of Calanthe, welcomed Emperor Anure with open arms when he came knocking at the door of their island nation. Gul was canny, however. He managed to charm the emperor into allowing Calanthe to remain an independent nation, in exchange for Lia’s hand in marriage (as his third wife). A decade later, Gul is dead and Lia is a virgin queen, continuously coming up with new reasons to delay her wedding. A desire to keep her people safe would be reason enough for Lia to play nice with Anure, but beyond that she must protect the land of Calanthe itself. There is a dangerous magic associated with Calanthe that makes it vital to keep bloodshed away from the soil. So Lia engages in this endless dance, friendly enough to keep Anure from attacking her, but cold enough to hold him at bay.
Unsurprisingly, Lia is none too happy to find Conrí and his people on her shores, upsetting this delicate balance. While – theoretically - she would like to see Anure overthrown, she has no interest in actually being a part of the war. Yet Conrí demands she help him. His seer - a wizard who joined his rebellion - told him that the war’s success depends on his marrying Lia and using the Orchid Ring. Unknowing and uncaring of what difficulties it might present, Conrí waltzes into Lia’s life and insists she marry him so that they might fight Anure together.
To say that I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series would be an understatement, and it should be clear why. Kennedy has managed to create two extremely different characters who nonetheless come across as a perfect fit. Both sharp thinkers who are devoted to their people, it was clear to me from the first that Conrí and Lia had a lot in common. Yet they come from such different points of view that at times they struggle with each other. Conrí is very open and demanding, while Lia is quietly, almost secretly strong. Watching them meet and struggle to find a path forward was much like seeing an unstoppable force meet the proverbial immovable object. Sparks fly, and in a way that makes me excited to see how their relationship develops.
Aside from the characters’ suitability, I also loved the setting of this book. Kennedy is clearly experienced with worldbuilding, laying out the setting in a way that is understandable but never boring. This is a land on the brink of war, but I can’t tell whether that will be solved by battle or politics. There’s also magic woven throughout the story in ways that will likely come back into play in the future, but it is tempered by the political power each character already wields. This can often be trouble in a fantasy book - too much magic makes it seem like the characters can’t determine their own destiny. Kennedy seems to have gotten the balance just right.
All in all, this looks to be an exciting start to a new series. And I will definitely be looking into Kennedy’s backlist while I await the next book.
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