The world of Renthia is a terrifying place. Beautiful, but terrifying. Daleina, who lived through an attack by spirits as a child, knows this better than nearly anyone, and has dedicated her life to making sure that what happened to her village never happens to anyone in Renthia again. Spirits–air, water, ice, wood, fire, and earth–are what make the world live, but they are also the forces of death and destruction, and keeping the balance is the queen’s responsibility.
So what happens when the queen’s strength seems to be slipping?
Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of this novel are the ways in which it doesn’t bow to conventional narrative. The main character, Daleina, is not the best at everything, does not succeed in every venture and go on to save the day because of it. She’s a complicated character, to be sure, and it is the ways in which she responds to the actions of others that drives the plot and keeps the reader engaged with her quest to not only succeed at the academy, but to become an heir to the crown of Renthia and serve her people, in her own way.
The narrative is at times merely workmanlike, the consistent point of view of Daleina occasionally overly navel gazing, but more often than not the very imagination at the heart of the story is stunning and part of an overall feeling of simultaneous dread and wonder. This is a novel that doesn’t skirt the dangerous aspects of its fantasy elements, or couch the narrative in heroic imagery to such a degree that the reader is removed from the immediacy of harm. The fact that Daleina is part of a close-knit group, rather than the competent loner women protagonists often end up being, means that violence or tragedy cut doubly–the terror of an attack and the loss of a friend.
Ultimately, imagination and strong group dynamics carry the narrative, and make it an engrossing read. It has aspects of found family and the draw of having a magical academy as the main setting for Daleina’s story, with fun additions of the loner-mentor and a more casual approach to romantic relationships than is often seen in stories utilizing the “pre-modern” society standard. The novel does suffer a little from the “assumed white” manner of describing characters, where the skin color of a new character is given more attention if it is not white (though Durst includes not just the white-to-brown spectrum of Earth, but shades of green as well).