The Pearls/ The Crown
After finishing The Pearls and then The Crown, a two-volume fantasy series by Deborah Chester, I thought it okay. It was nicely written overall, but nothing that special. But rather to my surprise, the books stayed with me. I went on considering their plotting and characters, and suddenly I realised that I had in fact read something out of the ordinary. Still a bit flawed, but much better than I thought originally.
The Pearls and The Crown are sequels to the Ruby Throne trilogy, which Deborah Chester wrote in the 1990s, and which marked her turn from historical romance to fantasy. You needn’t have read the earlier trilogy (I haven’t), but you must be prepared for several snippets of backstory included here and there, albeit only enough to explain the characters’ background and mindset.
Three years ago, Caelan E’non, a former slave, gladiator and bodyguard to the imperial house, destroyed the evil gods which had the empire in their grip. As new emperor, he abolished the old, evil religious orders and cleansed the army of all devotees of the old cults, unless they were prepared to swear fealty to him and renounce their old beliefs. One of the officers thus dishonorably discharged was Shadrael tu Natalloh. As a youth, the results of a careless dare caused him to undergo a terrible ritual that tied him irrevocably to evil and robbed him of his soul, in exchange granting him powerful magical abilities. Shadrael never particularly wanted to be evil, but he made the best out of a bad situation and quickly rose to the rank of a highly respected legion commander. Coming from an old aristocratic family, he regards Caelan as a usurper and upstart, and hates him passionately for robbing him of his career and condemning him to a life of outlawry.
So Shadrael is more than pleased when, at the beginning of The Pearls, his older brother hires him to abduct the emperor’s only sister, Lady Lea, as part of a scheme to gain independence for their home province. That same night, he gets another offer. If he delivers Lady Lea to the banished priests of the evil god Beloth, as his reward he will receive a soul. Shadrael is in a fix: Some of the dark powers he gained for his allegiance for the evil gods remain, but this pool is limited, as it can now never be refreshed. Once all his magic is gone, he is afraid madness will overtake him and kill him, and as he has no soul, he will be damned.
Lea feels happy that she can escape the stifling confines of court life and courtiers elbowing for her favor when she leaves for a diplomatic mission to her home province. Gifted with the power to communicate with elemental spirits, she has never really adapted to the role of imperial princess. When she is kidnapped during a brutal attack, she is shocked, but even more so when she finds out in a moment of involuntary mind-meld that the harsh and murderous renegade who commands her abductors is the man fated to be her future. Although I don’t usually like this scenario, it worked fine here because of Lea. She rants neither at Fate nor at the commander, but she begins to observe him closely to find out whether there is anything likeable in him, anything to show he’s not completely evil, and thereby make her situation easier.
Their relationship continues as a subtle game of cat-and-mouse. Lea bears her captivity with as much reason, dignity and strength as she can, while Shadrael needs to protect her from his men, and himself from her clear gaze. Very slowly, they develop grudging respect for each other which soon covers deeper emotions barely hinted at. This may not please readers who wish for more obviously sexual heat between their leading couple, but I found it fascinating.
Lea and Shadrael’s adventures are interspersed with scenes from the imperial court which center on Lea’s brother and his wife, the main protagonists of the earlier trilogy. I liked those scenes, because they show what forces have shaped Lea during the last years, and I found the glimpses we get of the older couple’s difficulties in governing the empire, in spite of all their best intentions and exceptional magical talents, refreshing.
At the beginning of The Crown, Shadrael must decide to which of the two parties who employed him to abduct Lea he will deliver her. Matters then go dramatically wrong for him, and he is betrayed and humiliated spectacularly. Suddenly he finds himself adrift, and that’s when he became real to me. As the renegade warrior, Shadrael is an old soul: fatalistic, controlled, harsh-tempered. Now he (and we with him) rediscovers aspects of himself that had been buried, begins to act impulsively and sometimes even inconsistently, and becomes so much younger, more human and more loveable. Lea’s development is less obvious, but it’s there, too. While at the beginning she is too good to be true, and unable to deal with those who try to manipulate her, she learns to trust in her own quiet abilities, and deal with violence as it becomes necessary. I liked Lea and Shadrael very much, and only would have wished for more interaction between them in the second volume.
As you can see, I really fell for Shadrael. If you are a goner for bad boys redeemed, and are happy with the very subtle sensuality, The Pearls and The Crown might be a very good choice for you. It’s a series I definitely plan to revisit.