Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.
In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.
But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.
Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.
But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.
Good for people who enjoy: strong female leads, intense sword/magic battle scenes, splash of romance
Review: This book easily pulled me in with the promise of being somewhere between Gladiators and Game of Thrones. And the author didn’t lie, but now I love the book so much that I don’t like comparisons because it’s a beast to be reckoned with all on its own. Estep created a wonderful world with its own unique laws to magic. People are born as magiers, masters, or mutts – a decreasing ability with magic as you go down the list. Our main character, Lady Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair, is on the “Winter” side of a Summer/Winter strong family bloodline. When we meet her, she is a mutt through and through, but even then, we know something is up.
For me, a good book starts with the main character. This sounds simple enough, but think of how many books are ruined by nonsensical characters. Or ones whose all their problems could be solved if they only communicated.
But Evie didn’t let me down. She grew up in a world where she was seventeenth in line for the throne. Her parents were brutally massacred, and she was thrown into the queen’s castle where everyone is only out for themselves, desperate for a chance to win favor with the queen or crown princess (who I’ll get into later). As someone who has walls up for various reasons, even when I desperately wanted her to say something she didn’t or share a secret she kept to herself, I understood why she didn’t. Her character arc throughout the book is powerful, but also realistic. She doesn’t trust people who haven’t earned it. She’s as desperate for real friendship as she is terrified of it. The only thing better than the fantastical world already set up by Estep was how character-driven this plot was.
The only character just as important as the hero is the villain. And boy does this book have a good set of villains. From the moment I met Vasilia, I wanted her blood. I chanted the book’s title in my head as a mantra. Kill the queen. She’s a common case of someone spoiled rotten their whole life whose impatience and greed are her (and her kingdom’s) downfall. “Her kingdom” and “her people” are not even close to being synonymous in her mind. She’s the type of person that Littlefinger from Game of Thrones would love to meet, because she has all the greed and power with none of the mind power. But instead of Littlefinger, we get Maeven. Although she’s more in the background, Evie quickly realizes she’s the puppeteer. Even though she doesn’t have the background with Evie to make us hate her and get the mob mentality for her death, she’s just as easy to want dead as Vasilia.
This book did all the big things right – world building, main characters, character arcs – but what really sealed the deal for me was the minor characters and their subplots. The Black Swan gladiator troupe gave me multiple characters that I became very invested in. The romance with Lucas Sullivan, the troupe’s trainer who has a past as complicated as Evie’s. Splashed in the background giving you intimidate moments but leaving you desperate for more. Serilda Swanson, owner of the Black Swans and ex-personal guard to the queen who is desperate for any Blair to be on the throne but Vasilia. Xenia, the ogre dance instructor with an agenda of her own. Paloma, Black Swan champion and brilliant fighter who has almost just as much reason to have trust issues as Evie.
I could go on and on about this book (and would love to in the comments below). I can’t say enough times how much I would recommend this book.
Summer queens are fine and fair, with pretty ribbons and flowers in their hair. Winter queens are cold and hard, with frosted crowns made of icy shards.
Overall Rating: 5 stars
*These Amazon links are through Amazon Associates where I receive a small percentage (nothing taken from the book’s author or team). This money will be put towards my own publishing efforts.