The Pretender's Crown
Well. It’s unusual, at least.
Belinda Primrose is a spy and assassin for Lorraine, the queen of a country on a map that looks suspiciously like 1588 Europe. Belinda is also a magician (called witchlords in this alternate historical fantasy), and happens to be Lorraine’s bastard daughter, the progeny of the Virgin Queen and her chief spymaster, Lord Robert Drake. Over the course of the book Belinda makes more discoveries about her magic while machinating her way through Europe (whoops, sorry, Echon) and trying to decide whether she wants to accept the throne of Aulun (aka England).
The plot summary stops there. The Pretender’s Crown is the sequel to The Queen’s Bastard and holy cow was I confused. There is such a wealth of information, place names, and people it took me forever to get it all straight, and by then I didn’t care. There is no point in reading this book without having read the first one, but after this experience I won’t be picking up the first with reason number one being the characters are possibly the most depressingly distasteful cast I’ve come across in a long, long time.
If you pick this one up in the bookstore out of curiosity, ignore the back cover because it’s about as misleading as a politician. It gives the impression of a story centered around Belinda, who is torn between “the witchlord embrace of her former lover Javier” and the “sensual dark magic of Dmitri, envoy to a neighboring throne”. These are lies. This is not only non-romance fantasy, it is an ensemble fantasy with a vengeance. Every few pages the point of view switches to someone else, and since we have Belinda, Lorraine, Lord Robert Drake, Javier and Dmitri, plus an assortment of other characters who get their half hour of fame, the narrative was an unfocused, blurry ratatouille of people.
Secondly. These people are screwed up. Seriously screwed up. It was like taking all the dysfunctional siblings in every romance novel ever written (who didn’t get their own book), and chucking them all in one. Belinda, our central character, is so complex and unsympathetic I never escaped the feeling that the author had modeled her on Lucrezia Borgia; apparently in the first book she incited her lover to rape another woman. (On a side note, Belinda is not so much bisexual as she is indiscriminate. It has nothing to do with sexual freedom or vocation – frankly, she could probably get her jollies as much from a dog as from a nun.) The other characters are no better. Incest, betrayal, Lolita-complexes, and more in a violent political arena – I couldn’t take it. Although the novelized representation of dysfunction can provide many hours of amusement as well as profound social commentary, I think it works only if it resonates with the reader in some way. With few exceptions, these people are just foul.
Lastly. The problem with a highly political story like this is that in the hands of a lesser author the characters seem more manipulative than clever, and power becomes a depressingly large theme. As you may have already gathered, the events are heavily modeled on an alternate history of Queen Elizabeth, Catholicism, and the Spanish Armada, and here my personal biases rear their ugly heads. Tudor England is my least favorite historical period in the world, bar none. And when I was studying history in uni, I did everything possible to avoid religious studies; I still do. So when a novel combines both aspects and coats everything in a layer of magic and weird sex, it takes a very special narrative to get on my good side. This is not it.
Historical Fantasy is actually one of my favorite sub-genres, and I was intrigued when The Pretender’s Crown turned out to be a variation on late 16th-century Europe. I give Ms. Murphy points for originality, prose that is smooth and efficient, and for creating an immensely complex, complicated and layered story that might actually makes total sense – to the right person. I hated it.
I live in Seattle, Washington and work as a legal assistant. I remember learning to read (comic strips) at a young age and nowadays try to read about 5-6 books a week. I love to travel, especially to Europe, and enjoy exploring smaller towns off the tourist track though London is my favorite city in the world.