Review: Queen of the Unwanted (Jenna Glass)

1 Aug

Queen of the Unwanted (The Women’s War 2)

-Jenna Glass

            “So that’s it, then?” Tynthanal said after a long and resentful silence. “You’d force me to abandon the woman I love to save Ellinsoltah the trouble of having to deal with a rival claimant to her throne?”

            “You make it sound like some triviality,” she retorted. “A man’s life hangs in the balance, although I hope you know I would put your happiness above the life of some man I’ve never met. But don’t you see that the issue would never have come up if Ellinsoltah had a firm hold on her throne? We owe our very existence to her willingness to protect us from Aaltah. If you marry Kailee, we will be assured of Rhozinolm’s support even if Ellinsoltah is dethroned.”

            “Then offer Corlin in my stead!” Tynthanal snapped. “If this marriage of state is so important, it shouldn’t matter that he’s younger than his potential bride!”

            Alys growled in frustration. She understood her brother’s distress, and she wished there were another way out, but she was in no mood to deal with a temper tantrum. “Stop being a child!” she snapped back. “As you well know, he cannot enter into a legal marriage agreement for another three years. I would not want to trust the lives of everyone in this principality on a nonbinding verbal agreement, would you? Even Delnamal did his duty and married Shelvon when he loved another. Are you telling me you cannot measure up to him, of all people?”

            She had the satisfaction of seeing her verbal barb hit its mark as Tynthanal flinched at the comparison. He had to see the truth in her words, and yet he refused to accept them. “So you’re basically telling me I have to take your damn potions or else!” There was a hint of panic hiding behind the anger that flashed in his eyes.

            Alys wondered how many young women had worn that particular expression over the long history of Seven Wells, how many had screamed and cried and begged to be released from unwanted marriages only to have their wishes ignored. Why should her brother be any different? And why did he have to make an already difficult situation even harder? “Yes,” she bit out. “That’s it exactly.”

            “Fine!” he snarled, pushing back his chair and standing up. “I’ll take the ‘or else.’ ”

-Queen of the Unwanted.

It is a sad truth, as politicians as diverse as Barrack Obama and Donald Trump discovered, that it is easy to win office, but harder to bring about lasting change.  The new officeholder rapidly discovers that the devil is in the details, that there were reasons beyond stupidity, incompetence and malice why the previous officeholder failed to have any long-term effects on the world.  It is easy to promise a new heaven and a new earth, but harder – far harder – to actually keep those promises. 

In the previous book, The Women’s War, a triad of unwanted women from the Abby of the Unwanted cast a spell that opened up whole new vistas of magic to women, from a subtle spell that prevented unwanted conception to nastier spells targeted that could be targeted on rapists, murderers and betrayers.  The remaining women from the Abbey were sent to the edge of the desert into an exile that was intended as a de facto death sentence, but they discovered – there – a new well of magic they could use to secure their independence from the kingdom and declare themselves an independent state.  The world, however, is still reeling under the effects of the Blessing (or the Curse, depending on whom you ask) and powerful forces are gathering to destroy Women’s Well once and for all.

Jenna Glass has taken a gamble in this book and centred a large part of the text on two new characters, Abbess Mairah, a cold and calculating young woman and Norah, an older woman, from a different kingdom.  Mairah, the first and only women to enter the Abby willingly (as the inevitable consequence of a revenge scheme), is perhaps the most powerful woman outside Women’s Well, under strict orders from her monarch to find a way to reverse the Blessing/Curse or else; Norah, who took an immediate dislike to Mairah before the world changed, intends to ensure the Blessing remains firmly in place.  The relationship between the two women is poisonous right from the start, triggering off a chain of events that lead directly to disaster as they eventually wind up at Women’s Well.  In a sense, toxic masculinity has given way to toxic femininity and both women play a major role in damaging their own cause. 

The characters introduced in the first book, therefore, have less development than I had expected, as they grapple with the new world order.  Queen Ellinsoltah struggles to establish herself as the ruler of her kingdom, even after she proved she could kill as effectively as any man; she discovers, just as the historical Queen Elizabeth did, that men on her council would work to circumvent her orders.  Delnamal struggles to stabilise his kingdom and resume the attack on Woman’s Well; Alysoon, now the ruler of Women’s Well, finds herself grappling with the same issues that confronted her father and reluctantly forced to admit, for better or worse, that he had reason.  Queen of the Unwanted is very much a middle book in a trilogy and it shows.

Alysoon, in fact, comes across as a hypocrite.  Having spent her early life battling for a marriage that actually suited her, then a sizable chunk of the last book trying to prevent her daughter being wedded off to an unsuitable man, Alysoon finds herself forced to offer her brother’s hand in marriage to Queen Ellinsoltah’s niece.  He doesn’t take it very calmly, as you can see above, and Alysoon doesn’t take that very calmly … which is the exact same problem her father had, when the time came to arrange marriages for himself and his children.  To be fair, Alysoon recognises her brother has reason to be unhappy – and it works out better than anyone has any right to expect – but her father had the same realization too.

Delnamal, meanwhile, continues his slow fall into madness, even though he’s got most of what he wanted (in particular, a heir from the woman he loved before he was forced into a loveless marriage).  It rapidly becomes clear he isn’t cut out for fatherhood, unable to offer any love to the baby or his adopted older son.  His kingdom’s instability, made worse by his poor decisions, make it harder for him to do anything, so he grasps at the straw Mairah offers when they cross paths towards the end of the book.  The result is a disaster that sets up the conflict for the final book.  (It is worth repeating that much of the monarchy described in this series is simply allohistorical.) 

There’s less to say about how the plot develops overall.  The new magics are explored and developed, allowing more research to be carried out.  There are some positive interactions as well as a negative ones, some characters prove themselves to be better than they seem; others, unable or unwilling to give up old grudges or even simply walk away, play a role as events move rapidly towards disaster.  In the end, most of the characters are deeply flawed, because of their society, and their flaws – all too often – overshadow their virtues.  It is odd, in my view, that there are few characters who are not nobility and the ones who are briefly mentioned do not get a chance to shine, at least on the page.

Overall, Queen of the Unwanted is a good read, if suffering under the weight of being a middle book.  It allows everyone to take a breath, before events start picking up speed again; it digs into some, if not all, of the logical consequences of the Blessing/Curse and how clashing personalities can cause disasters none of them intended.  I give it four out of five.

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