Kill the Queen
By Jennifer Estep
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: October 2, 2018
Reviewed by Nancy
The first volume in a new fantasy series, Kill the Queen follows Lady Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair, a poor relation of the Queen of Bellona. Everleigh, who prefers to be called Evie, grew up in the royal palace after her parents were murdered. Queen Cordelia takes little notice of her, and her cousin Crown Princess Vasilia loves to put her in her place. For friendship, Evie turns to one of the cooks and to the royal jeweler, to whom she is apprenticed.
Evie’s life consists of keeping her head down, negotiating the hazardous palace politics, and performing the jobs no one else in the royal family wants to do, like baking pies for dignitaries. The story opens as she’s baking pies for the Andvarian royal family, who are visiting because one of their princes is marrying Vasilia.
The gala where the pies are served doesn’t quite go according to plan. Vasilia assassinates her betrothed and her mother and murders the royal family and all the guests. Thanks to Evie’s minor, or mutt, magic and to the greater gift she keeps secret, she survives the catastrophe in a way that leaves Vasilia believing she’s dead. On the run, desperate for a haven, she follows the queen’s last order to her and seeks out Serilda Swanson, owner of the Black Swan gladiator troupe.
Evie keeps her true name secret lest anyone betray her or try to use her. Working as a cook for the gladiator troupe gives her a haven but also forces her to train in the combat arts. Gradually, she develops friendships in the group. There’s a strong attraction between her and magier (or mage) Lucas Sullivan, the somewhat aloof swordmaster.
As Evie travels with the gladiators, the social skills of her old life come in handy. So does the magic she still tries not to reveal. When a crisis forces the revelation of Evie’s name and heritage, the gladiators are initially stung that she concealed herself but then rally around her. Serilda Swanson was once in Queen Cordelia’s guard. She and her troupe are loyal to the late queen, not to the woman who usurped the throne. They vow to help Evie kill Queen Vasilia, who means to start a war with Andvari at the behest of her lover and his allies. If they succeed, Evie will take the throne.
Performing at the coronation lets them get close to Vasilia, but they know she has set a trap for them. Vasilia is aware of the ties between her mother and Serilda. She won’t risk having someone as dangerous as Serilda at large and sees this as a chance to eliminate her and the troupe. Evie has one chance to kill her cousin, who has always been more powerful than she is. Can she throw off the mental chains of the past, bring every skill she has to bear, and save the realm?
The characters are well drawn and sympathetic, and Evie’s evolution into a formidable woman from one who has few skills and is largely overlooked is deftly handled. Each of the minor characters who matter has at least one notable trait that makes him or her stand out. Lucas, the Andvari swordmaster, is a complex and interesting character with problems and secrets of his own. There are romantic elements in the story, but they play a minor role in the overall plot.
The worldbuilding is excellent, with unique magic systems, and the pace moves well. There was one point where the usefulness of Evie’s old social skills seemed a bit too coincidental, but that’s a small complaint.
Highly recommended. 4.5 stars