This book filled the reading community with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Personally, I was so incredibly excited for this book. For those who are up to date on the series in Empire of Storms there was a rather important character missing. Chaol. During all the events of Empire of Storms this novel (originally meant to be a novella) were simultaneously happening.
With SJM books its incredibly difficult to review without spoilers, but I shall do my best.
As a result of the events of Queen of Shadows Chaol Westfall must travels to the Southern Continent, a place we know very little about, with Nesryn Faliq, an incredibly gifted archer. Straight away I loved the richness of this different land, it's views, wealth and above all what it holds dear. The Healers of the Torre. And really knowledge in general. Even though Yrene Towers came from a humble background she was still revered by the Khagan and his family for her healing magic.
Speaking of the Khagan. WHY IS EVERYTHING SO DIFFICULT TO PRONOUNCE?! I thought the system by which the heir was chosen was fascinating, if a little archaic. Though the brothers and sisters all desire the throne and are willing to fight for it they still care deeply for one another. A fact that added a great deal of depth to the novel. I liked each of the Khagan's children for different reasons. Mainly, Sartaq. He was from two worlds, the son of the Khagan but his found family, the Ruhkin, meant just as much to him.
What I enjoyed the most about this novel was how disability was represented. Now, it isn't a topic that I can identify with so please let me know if anything I say has any inaccuracies. It was easy to see the care and delicacy with with Sarah handled this topic. I'd read that she took a lot of care to work with sensitivity readers. I found it particularly wonderful that there was not one, but two characters with a disability. Still trying to avoid spoiling here so I'm gonna be vague. I found it wonderful that Shen remained a member of the guard, that his comrades worked with him so that loosing his hand didn't hinder him. Though his injury was significantly different to the other character's they still had a similar mental recovery. Shen was the prospective light at the end of the tunnel so to speak. A possibility. I would love to hear from those who use wheelchairs as to how they felt about this representation.
Now for all the spoiler-y bits.
I was planning on making this section somewhat organised but....WHAT THE HOLY SHIT BALLS. MAEVE IS A VALG. That was the plot twist of the century....but makes complete sense. I'm hoping, however, that this was the plan from the beginning and not just something that was shoehorned in. I'm leaning towards believing that this had been planned when certain facts about Maeve were laid out. No-one has ever seen her fae form, she fiercely protects the healers of Doranelle and her power has always been described as a 'darkness.' This made the surprise POV at the end all the more terrifying. AELIN. My heart. Two pages that filled me with dread, horror and hatred.
One thing that troubled me throughout the novel was how the Valg managed to get from Adalarn to Antica. That aside, the Valg side plot in this novel was fantastic. It felt so well thought out. The first possible 'sighting' of a Valg occurred as Yrene was researching them after speaking with Chaol. The ties between the Valg and healing magic were fascinating. The closer Yrene came to healing Chaol the closer she was to figuring out how her magic could combat the possession. Hence, why she was relentlessly hunted by the Valg.
Never would I have guessed who the Valg had possessed. I had my sights set on it being Hasar, mainly because she was so spiteful, similar to how Dorian became when he was forced to wear the collar. Instead, it was the supposed incredibly sweet and very pregnant Duva. Another plot point I thought was brilliant. It pulled on the heartstrings of the family after loosing another daughter/sister prior to this novel beginning. Tumelun's death was no accident. She was murdered by the Valg inside Duva. Only once Yrene had connected the dots as to how her magic repelled the Valg was she able to save Duva and her unborn child.
Nesryn and Sartaq. I far prefer the ships introduced in this novel. Chaol and Nesryn never really seemed to suit in my opinion. Sartaq is just as headstrong and family orientated as Nesryn. The way he treated her was a joy to read, he revered her. Her skill with a bow, fierce determination and of course he had to notice her beauty. But what he didn't give a toss about was her background. Her humble origins were of no concern to him...and he told his father as much, that if that meant he couldn't be the heir then he didn't want it. Clearly, his father saw the courage in that declaration...and named him the heir.
What I noticed most is how Sarah seems to have responded to her readers. Nearly every side character is POC, there are LGBTQ+ characters and unattractive characters!
I also saw the tenderness with which she crafted Chaol's recovery. His journey from Captain of the Guard to needing a wheelchair and then being able to walk. I was moved by the entire thing and also felt it very gratifying that at the end Chaol would still be slightly dependant on the chair with his ability to walk now being tied to Yrene's magic. To me that felt more realistic. In comparison when reading ACOWAR (review here) none of the characters had any consequences. No-one died, was injured or changed which honestly was incredibly unrealistic. If Chaol had completely recovered it would've felt the same. His was both a physical recovery but a mental one. He no longer saw his chair as a weakness but as a different kind of strength. It felt very similar to how Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows* (review here) used his cane. He made it part of his persona so I'm incredibly excited to see how Chaol is in the next instalment.
Finally, Yrene. I adore her. She smart, brave and takes no nonsense. Despite her hatred of Adalarn she still vows to do what she can for Chaol. She didn't pity him, baby him or treat him as any less of a person. I cannot wait to see her reconnect with Aelin.
If you haven't read this yet because of your reservations please please give it a go.