A brother and sister trained from birth to protect their ruler find their skills—and their assumptions—tested in Hawke's debut novel.
Jovan and Kalina are noble-born siblings whose family has long performed a secret duty: to guard the Chancellor against covert threats, especially poison. Jovan is the "proofer"—the preparer or tester of everything the ruler eats or drinks, aided in this task by his incredible memory. Kalina should have had Jovan's role, but her physical frailty forbade it; her determination led her to learn other aspects of spycraft from their teacher and uncle, Etan. Idealistic, good-hearted Tain is their childhood friend—and the heir to the powerful Chancellor position. When Etan and the old Chancellor both fall to poison, Jovan, Kalina, and Tain are all thrust into responsibilities they thought were years away. The three friends must question everything they know about their world and each other as they struggle to solve the murders of their predecessors, keep the city from falling to a rebel army, outwit career politicians twice their age, and survive ongoing threats on their lives. A tightly wound and ever escalating plot is complemented by the cast's refreshing nuances—Jovan is implied to be on the autism spectrum, and Kalina's training as a spy hasn't made her superhuman, just all the more conscious of her limitations. None of the main characters are terribly good at inflicting violence on other people but must rely on their wits, charm, and moral compasses to overcome their more ruthless enemies. Even when magic comes into play the story never loses its essentially human and relatable scale, making it stand out from more sprawling, cinematic fare.
A well-crafted debut with believable political intrigues, solid worldbuilding, and original characters.