Night Shade, 2009, 299 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-59780-135-5
Anyone who thinks it’s easier for reviewers to discuss books by friends and good acquaintances is seriously deluding themselves. Serious reviewers are pathologically unable to say “Great book, buy it” unless they mean it. They tackle books by acquaintances with even more trepidation than usual: If the book sucks, they either have to say so or shut up. Given that shutting up a reviewer is about as easy as telling the hot wind not to blow (and I weigh my metaphors carefully here), you can imagine the tremendous psychic toll those situations can take. Woe is us.
Where I’m going with this introduction is that I don’t consider myself a trusted impartial source when it comes to Nathalie Mallet’s work. Like me, she’s a French-Canadian living and working outside Quebec: we first met at a west-coast SF convention and I have, since then, had a few good conversations with her and her husband at other conventions. I was relieved to find out that I actually enjoyed her debut novel The Princes of the Golden Cage despite my general lack of enthusiasm for fantasy novels. Similarly, I’m just as happy to report that The King’s Daughters is just as much fun to read, and confirms along the way that Mallet’s in business to write accessible, entertaining fantasy. (It also avoids some of the deficient copy-editing that plagued the first volume; good job, Night Shade!)
It picks off where the first volume left off: Our narrator, Prince Amir, is heading north to meet his new fiancé’s family. Given that she’s one of the titular king’s daughters, that means that Amir is about to enter another palace full of intrigue. His first moments as a diplomatic envoy representing his country go spectacularly badly (it’s a bit of unconvincing plotting that diplomatic protocols aren’t as developed in Prince Amir’s time: you would expect in a real-world situation that gifts would be cleared with lower-ranked staff –alas this isn’t that kind of world), but pleasing his would-be in-laws soon the least of Amir’s worries: Amir’s delegation has been decimated by brigands, the king is a tyrant, the queen is sick, their daughters are being kidnapped one by one and a local bully has taken an unfortunate interest in our narrator. Before we know it, we’re back knee-deep in issues of succession, magical enchantments and personal danger for Amir. A colourful assortment of characters are there to spice up matters, from a pair of sinister foreigners to a flashy libertine who’s obviously not who he seems, without forgetting the usual proto-scientist. Amir gamely tries to follow along, his known detective skills blooming into flashes of magical abilities. While the first volume was steeped deep into Arabian mythology, this one makes use of its cold snowy Scandinavian environment, with a very different feel.
Although the plotting has a conventional quality that sometimes bothered me, The King’s Daughters makes good use of its narrator: Amir has the potential to develop into a full-blown hero, but he’s not there yet and part of his appeal is to see him flail about, get into impossible situations, not figure out the obvious and be flummoxed by the unexpected. The sudden blooming of his magical abilities is a bit convenient (not to mention a tricky complication when Amir is often portrayed as a champion of rationality), but it does portend good things about his future adventures.
There’s certainly a lot more planned for Amir: The King’s Daughters ends on a surprising bittersweet note that defies a good chunk of reader expectations while making perfect sense in the context of a continuing series. This is one of those books where it’s a relief to find the first chapter of the next volume included as a teaser: Amir is changing quickly, and his follow-up adventure Death in the Traveling City promises much.
In the meantime, The King’s Daughter is the kind of mid-list fantasy novel that plays up a few strengths of the genre (the romance of a castle, the power dynamics of a monarchy, the interplay between rough science and advanced magic) while avoiding some of its usual traps: It doesn’t depend on the events of the previous volumes for context (in fact, it does well at recreating an entirely new setting in less than 300 pages) and manages to take advantage of an unusual mythology without overwhelming readers with context.
I may not be entirely objective, but as a base reader I’m pretty happy with the result.