This book didn’t really grab me until the midway point. I loved the idea of the Arabian setting, which was not the standard Medieval European backdrop that we see in so many Epic Fantasy books, but the main character, Ceda, is a pretty standard protagonist, who checks off on a lot of the typical Fantasy tropes:
– Orphan with a mysterious past
– Obsessed with revenge/redemption
– Ceda is pretty much a Mary Sue (She’s a world-class gladiator who beats men twice her size, and a world-class spy/courier. Add to that a knowledge of magical pharmaceuticals. Also, she’s gorgeous enough to catch the eye of royalty)
– And, of course, she eventually realizes that she is innately, magically ‘Special.’ She’s the only person in the realm perfectly suited to defeat her home city’s twelve evil kings. Jeez, she might as well have a lightning bolt scar on her forehead!
We spend the first half of the book rolling around in these tropes. Then, finally, Ceda finds a way to infiltrate the palace’s all-girl death squad, and that’s when the book gets interesting. I’m a sucker for a good spy story, or a ‘palace intrigue’ story, and that’s what we get here.
The best part of this book were the titular villains. Ceda is on a mission to kill the nearly-immortal Twelve Kings. Each king has a singular magical speciality, and a unique secret weakness that Ceda must find and exploit. It’s a conceit straight out of an old Kung Fu movie, or a boss-battle video game. Awesome.
I wish more of the book had focused on Ceda as a traitor in the midst of these kings, and there had been more on her discovering and solving the riddles that reveal their weaknesses. It’s hard to keep track of the twelve kings’ names and their specialties (also the names of all of their female bodyguards, and the deities that start to show up), but that was a minor quibble. A ‘palace intrigue’ story should be complex, with a lot of characters to follow.
A bigger problem I had was how ‘laissez faire’ the villains are with Ceda, once she joins up with them. Most of the palace guard don’t trust her, as a mysterious newcomer; in fact a few of them try to kill her (acting against the kings’ wishes). But then she’s also allowed to escape the palace during an attack (and to return without being punished), and then she’s allowed an apparent conjugal visit with the men who are conspiring with her. This kind of erodes the earlier tone of the book, where the palace-guard is presented as this super-efficient, super-ruthless operation. As soon as Ceda joins up, she is easily outmaneuvering her targets at every turn.
But still, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in Book 2. In fact, I almost wonder if a reader would enjoy the series more if they skipped the set-up in Book 1 and went straight to the additional king-slaying that will hopefully occur in Book 2.