Literacy becomes the key to liberation in a thoughtful debut fantasy.
Tutor-in-training Raisa may be one of the most privileged Arnathim in Quilara, but she is still a slave, like all her people. Unlike them, she has learned to read and write the sacred symbols in order to teach future kings. Her relative freedom would make her an ideal recruit for the Resistance, but she fears being executed like her predecessor; besides, she’s interested only in writing and in pursuing her torrid, forbidden romance with Prince Mati. But when Mati’s throne, their lives, and all Quilara come under threat, she may lose any choice. Raisa’s narration is cleverly interwoven with the myths of the divine origins of writing and the oppressive system it sustains, providing a fascinating spin on a common fantasy plot. Unfortunately, Raisa herself—vacillating, selfish, and shallow—is an unimpressive protagonist, and an attempt to reinscribe racial power dynamics (the Arnathim are white and curly-haired, while their oppressors are olive-skinned with straight, black hair) falls flat. While she condemns the Resistance for their distrust in Mati’s (impotent) promises of reform, the Arnathim suffer mostly offstage, allowing Raisa to wallow over her ill-judged (and inherently abusive) affair. Once the nation collapses into treason, revolt, and armed invasion, the literal deus ex machina (or ex tabula) resolution seems awfully pat for a society scarred by generations of bigotry and exploitation.
Kudos for a fresh take on a fraught topic but not for derailing slavery into a vehicle for romantic angst. (Fantasy. 12-18)