Once again, I have to thank NetGalley for bringing this gem to my attention. But then, it’s an Angry Robot book and they are always worth another look…
When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war. There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest. Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?
So, this is a portal story – one of the staples of speculative fiction. What stands out for me in this offering, is Meadows’ strong, unvarnished approach to her worlds and her characters. No one comes away from this adventure without having made some major mistakes. No one bounces around the violence unscathed and brave, clever characters who try to do the right thing can also be mean-minded, sarcastic and over-controlling. The other striking aspect to this tale is that the women have real agency over their lives and the lives of others – which forcibly brings home just how limited most women are in the average medieval fantasy adventure. Unless you are young and peculiarly singled out by some divine/familial/genetic destiny, of course. And while there is a nod to that trope here, it comes with a twist…
Meadows also ensures the violence has real consequences – people get hurt. And while there are magical healing spells, the damage doesn’t take away scarring or grow back limbs, or remove the trauma. I’m conscious that this sounds like some really grimdark, bleak trudge – and it’s nothing of the sort. The action kicks off rapidly with an engaging, sympathetic young protagonist, who finds herself unexpectedly dropped in the middle of another world. There is plenty of sharp humour as egos clash, along with lots of excitement and adventure. I stayed awake into the early morning to discover what would happen next to Saffron, Gwen and young Zech.
The worldbuilding is deftly done through the characterisation and we get a sense of Saffron’s bewilderment as she grapples with different food, different clothing and different standards of hygiene. There are layers in this world that are uncovered as the incipient conflict forces old enemies to band together in the face of the threat that Leoden poses. I like him as an antagonist – he is personable, charming and completely amoral. The women are furious that they were so completely taken in by him and Gwen feels guilty and ashamed.
And then comes the final act – the defining climax that wraps up this tale and moves the story along for the next book in the series to resume… I was stunned at the sudden shift in the tale. I certainly wasn’t expecting THAT. Or the heartbreaking poignancy surrounding Saffron’s storyline that had me blinking back tears – and I don’t cry often over books.
If you enjoy well-written, character driven fantasy with strong women featuring throughout, a cracking plot and beautifully constructed plot, then go looking for this book. I will be eagerly awaiting the sequel.