As the daughter of the Earl’s butler, Janna had a happy life at Castle Ambrose playing with the Earl’s children—until a conquering army sacked the castle, slaughtering the Earl and most of her family, and taking away the Earl’s sons in a cage. With no replacement lord yet appointed, the surviving staff of the castle eke out a living as a waystop for travellers. Like many of the girls, Janna is reduced to taking men back to her room—unlike them she possesses a mystical ability that makes them blank out for a short while, and thus agree to her claim they’ve already done the deed. She is resigned to a life of pretending to be a whore, until the discovery that her grandfather’s tales of a sea serpent in the lake and a rumour that the Earl’s sons are still alive combine to ignite dreams of casting out the usurper who destroyed both the country and her home.
While Jordan portrays an accessible world that is clearly not our own from the first page and the first overtly fantastical element—Janna’s discovery she can briefly freeze people—occurs fairly soon in the narrative, the opening segment is defined by the mundane foulness of a society that reduces girls to prostitution then excoriates them for choosing survival over “honourable” starvation whereas the mystical remains ethereal. This creates a feeling closer to a magical realist tale of a teen from a disadvantaged family finding their confidence than a classic fantasy novel. Thus, although fans of Elizabeth’s other works are likely to find the opening similarly engaging and the tone does shift, some readers seeking fantasy might be put off by the balance of emotion vs. magic.
Also, while Janna is not actually raped, Elizabeth does not glamorise or obfuscate her narrow escape or the casual inhumanity of those who place the moral responsibility for not being “defiled” entirely on her. Readers seeking an relaxing escape into a magical world are therefore unlikely to find it here.
Once Janna has resolved to act, the book shifts more toward the classic fantasy trope of a country protagonist with a special talent encountering the issues and iniquities of the big city. And Elizabeth’s grasp of action and intrigue is equal to her earlier social horrors, providing a pleasingly fast-paced exploration of what to do if the enemy aren’t all monsters.
Unfortunately—and it might merely be an artefact of this being the first book in a series—one of the critical moments in the book turns entirely on Janna’s choice of what to do with no commensurate challenge over whether she can achieve it; while this is a powerful moment of moral choice, the contrast with the preceding interweaving of what she ethical should do with what she physically and mystically can do leave it feeling slightly flat.
Janna herself is a well-crafted protagonist. Despite her unique ability to avoid the actual act of prostitution, she is mentally scarred by both the social pressure to act as if she is and the hypocritical social opprobrium when she does. This, very plausibly, sets her belief that all the current king’s supporters are the same monsters who killed her family deeper. She is thus ill-equipped to handle the discovery that life isn’t either-or, providing a series of quandaries that balance the theoretical strength of her powers.
The supporting cast are solidly written, displaying both an overall similarity to various fantasy tropes that makes them accessible with distracting exposition and nuances that make them interesting as people.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers seeking fantasy that focuses more on moral choice than the details of the overtly magical or fantastical.
I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.