Athalie by Jordan Elizabeth

Front cover of Athalie by Jordan ElizabethElizabeth blends the deeply personal with the apocalyptic to create a fantasy tale about a chosen one who doesn’t have the usual doubts or allies.

Each year, the Sapphire Empire sacrifices a young woman to the gods to bring prosperity. Chosen against expectation a short while before her wedding, Athalie’s doubts grow as her time in the palace being prepared for the ceremony reveals how imperfect the priesthood is. However, the truth is much worse: the gods do want the sacrifices but are content to let the world be destroyed. Playing on their love of games, Athalie convinces the gods to give the world one final chance: given another face, she has until the next full moon to find a series of talismans scattered across the known world. To make matters worse, being reborn seems to have made the strange whispers she has heard all her life blossom into a power she neither fully understands nor controls.

Like many fantasy novels, this one is the tale of an ordinary youth who turns out to be the chosen one, going on a scavenger hunt to save the world. However, Elizabeth adds a fresh twist: rather than being told by a prophet or drawn into it by a series of events, Athalie is reincarnated by the gods; thus, there is no angst or doubt over whether or not she is the chosen one; indeed, her commitment to succeed is potentially stronger than that of the gods who chose her.

However, this variation adds a different form of emotional turmoil: because she is inserted into the world as an adult, she is both lacking in a new family and friends, and a stranger to everyone she knows from her past life. Thus, she lacks any of the deep-seated support or even ongoing acquaintance that most people take for granted. And worse, due to one the rules imposed on her new life, she can’t tell anyone she is Athalie even if she could risk them not thinking her mad or a witch.

This knowing but not being known is especially traumatic in the case of her former fiance, who has—in recognition of her holy sacrifice—been betrothed to a woman of good status. Elizabeth uses this to good effect, playing not just on the usual romance trope of not being sure whether one’s beloved wants to marry another, but also leaning into the complex feelings of attraction he might suffer toward this person whose character and behaviour is so similar to Athalie, and the feelings of betraying her memory that threatens. While, like most potential romances, many obstacles could be avoided by sharing information, the specifics of Athalie’s situation prevent this, making it likely readers who find classic romance misunderstandings irksome will be less bothered here.

Elizabeth’s world-building provides an interesting setting for the story, the centre of which is the less usual situation that the priesthood are both corrupt and right about what the gods want. This realistic complexity appears in the other cultures of the world, with each appearing different yet not obviously better than the Sapphire Empire.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the answers not being relevant to the plot rather than Elizabeth’s not having considered these matters, some readers might find certain details unfeasible. Technology in the book is at the point that one nation has invented engines, so—consistently—the various nations Athalie needs to visit to find the items less than a month are close together; however, with the items symbolising a unity to counter the division that will destroy the world, this implies that either the world is small enough to travel to most of it in a month or that there are vast areas that somehow are not, and cannot be, part of the choice between survival and destruction that the gods set in place. A similar implication of being subject to yet excluded from shaping lies within all the nations that do feature sharing gods but only the Sapphire Empire having the sacrifices.

Although Elizabeth describes this as the first volume in a series, Athalie’s quest and her subplots are tidily resolved; thus readers will not suffer any sense of being denied a conclusion. Indeed, the wrapping up is so complete that readers might assume this was a stand-alone novel without the series name on the cover.

Athalie is a consistent protagonist, troubled by the many feelings that being a stranger among the pieces of her own life creates but focused on saving the world rather than wallowing in them. Very plausibly for someone with a massive secret, she instinctively withholds other information as well, countering her efforts to build allies. This pervasive mistrust, combined with the shock of discovering the gods might casually let the world cease, echoes back into her attitude to her powers, making her fail to realise ways in which they might help.

The supporting cast are pleasingly realistic: some people have strong opinions on the sacrifices, the politics, &c. but most people accept things as proper unless they affect them directly. This both avoids the simplistic moral binaries of some fantasy and supports the sense of Athalie not being certain who she can trust.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers seeking a chosen one narrative that does not involve the rejection of destiny.

I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.

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