The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury // fighters and folktales face off in this fantasy finale

Today on the blog, I review The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury (and crack out the alliteration again. Oops). You can read my review of The Sin Eater’s Daughter here; my review of The Sleeping Prince here (go on, I’m quite proud of that one); and my warning that this post may contain mild spoilers for the series, well, here!

31627294Author(s): Melinda Salisbury
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: 2nd March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (The Sin Eater’s Daughter #3)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

As the villainous Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla, queen’s executioner turned rabble rouser. Errin, scrappy apothecary turned prisoner. And what of Merek, prince turned runaway rebel?

But Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. A final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever…

If you’ve ever read a Melinda Salisbury book – and chances are you have, what with this being the conclusion to a trilogy and The Sin Eater’s Daughter being one of the blogosphere’s most talked-about additions to recent UKYA fantasy fiction – then in many ways you’ll know what to expect from The Scarecrow Queen: high stakes, lots of twists, rebellion, betrayal, a now familiar style full characterised by pacy, businesslike prose and descriptive Scandi minimalism, more betrayal. Salisbury certainly delivers a novel that will satisfy long-time readers, including by ensuring her characters are put through the ringer seven or eight times as the pages fly by. Fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse should find this stark, eerie series is up their alley.

Banking on the existence of its established world of austere castles, shady villages, impoverished peoples, hidden enclaves and shifting priorities, readers are thrown straight into an action-packed plot. Alchemy remains central, but the emphasis is on the building of a rebellion. Twylla takes on the role of recruitment officer and unlikely symbol (there are definite echoes of Katniss in The Hunger Games to her singing tactics). Errin battles to escape Aurek’s clutches in order to rejoin the fight against him. Merek, a favourite with fans early on, also returns, as do side characters like Nia and The Sleeping Prince’s standout newcomer, Silas. I would’ve liked more of the romance between Silas and Errin, but it’s not unexpected that it often takes a backseat to tension and atmosphere. Lief – Errin’s brother and Twylla’s former love interest – turned tail at the end of The Sin Eater’s Daughter and has been doing a swandive into increasing treachery ever since, though even with this book’s twists, the character’s motivations are still a little unclear, or at least not entirely compelling.

Not so in the case of the series’ big bad, the Sleeping Prince. Sinister and steeped in folktales – a treacherous semi-mythos which undoubtedly entails one of the most interesting parts of the saga – Salisbury has written a bone-chilling villain. It may be the finest feature of the book, if not the crowning achievement of the trilogy. Aurek is utterly despicable and reeks of the creeps, yet it’s undeniably effective. Its prose is more accessible than extravagant (“Scarecrow queen. Nothing but a dupe, alone in a field, hoping to keep the crows at bay”), but this finale is at its most gripping when the looming machinations of the Sleeping Prince abound.

Both major characters helm different sections of the first-person narration, though Errin only gets about one-third to Twylla’s two-thirds. Errin proved the more active and resourceful protagonist on her arrival, but it was always evident that Twylla would return as the series’ focus. Looking at the trilogy as the whole, Twylla’s arc is very clear – from passivity as the evil queen’s executioner, to awakening as a runaway, to activity as a rebel leader (“I am tired of running away from everything. I want to be like Errin. Like Nia. Like Sister Hope. I want to be the girl who fought a golem, the girl who slammed her hands on a table and told a room full of powerful women that I was going to fight”).

Frustratingly, the relative shortness of this series as a whole somewhat compromises the true potential for character development and subplots, particularly if you delight in the sprawling richness of writers like Laini Taylor or Rae Carson. Some minor characters fall flat and there’s a touch of the ‘miracle cure’ trope to Silas’ fate. The world-building is strong in many ways, but one can’t help feeling that the books would benefit from simply having more room for it. Perhaps this tightly-paced style is just a UKYA thing, but I’ve found I definitely like my high fantasy a little more complex, a little more time-consuming, a little more luxuriating.

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An action-packed, twisty conclusion with a bone-chilling villain from a writer who has established herself as a notable voice in recent UKYA fantasy fiction. This series as a whole feels relatively short and tightly paced, particularly if you prefer your high fantasy long and immersive, but it is perhaps a form of praise in itself to say that one of the only things that could’ve improved a trilogy was having more of it!

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