Hello and welcome to a review in which I am reunited with fantasy fiction! After a not-inconsiderable flirtation with contemporary and a dash of magical realism, I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the second book in Melinda Salisbury’s storming UKYA trilogy. And because I am not a fan of jumping into series reviews unannounced, you can read my review of the first book here.
Author(s): Melinda Salisbury
Publication date: February 4th 2016
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
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Ever since her brother Lief disappeared, Errin’s life has gone from bad to worse. Between caring for her sick mother and scraping together rent money by selling illegal herbal cures, she doesn’t have time for the war against the vengeful Sleeping Prince, woken as if from a terrible fairytale – but when her village is evacuated, she finds herself caught in a mythical conflict she never asked for. Desperate and homeless, the only person she can turn to is the mysterious Silas, a young man who buys her deadly poisons and won’t reveal why he needs them.
Then Silas, like her brother, vanishes, and Errin decides she must save herself, and her mother, alone. Journeying across a kingdom on the brink, what she finds may force her to make icult choice and shatter everything she thought she knew about her world.
Set in the same stark and treacherous world as that of her début, Melinda Salisbury’s much talked about fantasy follow-up sets itself the twin challenge of satisfying fans of the first book and introducing a largely new cast of characters. It reads quite like the opening book in a series – for me it was less static and even a little more inventive than its predecessor – but readers will certainly benefit from the world-building and set-up imparted by The Sin Eater’s Daughter.
A long way from the austere confines and murderous royalty of the now-fallen kingdom of Lormere, teenager Errin faces poverty and strife in the shady village of Almwyck. Abandoned by her brother, desperately seeking a cure for her sick mother and with the wrath of the newly reawakened Sleeping Prince looming, Errin will do what it takes to survive, even if that means selling illegal herbal remedies and risking persecution to make ends meet. Errin is level-headed, determined and not afraid to get her hands dirty. There’s a perhaps somewhat inevitable sense that she’s been designed to contrast with Twylla, the more passive heroine of The Sin Eater’s Daughter, but whatever the motive, it works: Errin is a heroine full of tangible vigour and is likely to appeal.
There is something of the air of a folk-tale about The Sleeping Prince, and it is archly deliberate. Salisbury’s distinctive writing style – neat, compact and relatively minmalist for the genre – lends itself to the eerie overtones of folklore and superstition, including the vast and vehement quest of the titular prince, a well-conjured (and semi-undead) villain. A kind of Pied Piper meets Sleeping Beauty mash-up, the mythology of the novel is symptomatic of the fact that while little here is shockingly original, it doesn’t have to be: the skill and shrewdness with which Salisbury blends the familiar and the fantastic is enough to cement the place of what is one of the most unique recent series on the UKYA shelf. (Basically, if you’ve ever asked yourself the question “What would the Sleeping Beauty story be like if Aurora were not a princess but a prince? And also MANIFESTLY EVIL?!” this is the book for you.)
When her village is evacuated to make way for soldiers but she daren’t risk leaving with a mother prone to the cruel rages and red eyes of a semi-mythical affliction, Errin turns to the mysterious Silas, a hooded young man who buys her poisons and never reveals his face (though she thinks she saw the end of his nose once when he laughed). Silas is a complex character – one of the best in the novel – at once both apparently kind and incredibly enigmatic, a real puzzle for the reader, and I liked that. One of my favourite things about the book, about any good book, is the ability of the writer to prompt questions from the audience almost before they even realize it themselves. The Sleeping Prince is packed with twists, turns, tensions, treachery, secrets, schemes, betrayals, bust-ups, revelations and, of course, revenge. The pace is a little uneven and some of the secondary characters are flat, but the plot absolutely keeps you guessing.
There are hints at a romance, but plot takes precedence and, particularly importantly if you’re not a fan love triangles, there’s not a whisper of a ménage à trois. It’s not the most cheerful of reads, which is perhaps why the book ends on a rather hilarious acknowledgement (“And finally, Javert. I did not forget you. I did not forget your name”). I was a bit bemused by the fact that several returning characters display such notable yet unexplained changes in personality and these relatively short books are ultimately too tightly-packed to satisfy my love of sprawling high or epic fantasy. However, the twists keep coming to the final page and the stakes are certainly high for The Scarecrow Queen, so if you liked the first book, this will be right up your alley.
For fans of Uprooted by Naomi Novik, This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab and the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, this sequel is a relatively short but plot-packed take on folktale-fantasy UKYA, with a vicious villain and plenty of twists among its highlights.