In the first of a new fantasy series by Durst (The Girl Who Could Not Dream, 2015, etc.), a woman with apparently weak magical abilities but exceptional smarts and determination competes to rule her land.
Aratay is a land where all the villages and even the cities are improbably built among the tree branches. This closeness to nature has its extreme downside, as the forest is swarming with wood, earth, water, air, and ice spirits whose deepest instinct is to exterminate humans. Paradoxically, the spirits are also compelled to forfeit some of their power to the queen they select, allowing that single human to control them all and forestall their more destructive tendencies. But is the current queen, Fara, losing that control? In spite of the queen, spirits slaughtered the village of Greytree—everyone but the family of Daleina, who revealed an affinity toward the spirits and managed to hold them off. Years later, Daleina begins training to become one of the queen’s potential heirs but cannot match the magical strength of her fellow candidates. Nevertheless, her drive and intelligence attract the disgraced Champion Ven, Queen Fara’s former lover, who hones the young woman’s skills and in the process discovers Fara’s terrible secret. There are plenty of fantasy bildungsromans that chronicle how a plucky young woman develops her unconventional magic in time to save everyone, and those even mildly familiar with the trope will foresee several aspects of the plot. However, it’s rare for a tale like this to have such an incredibly high body count or to force the protagonist to make the dark choices Daleina must. The overriding message—that great strength administered without heed for the consequences is inferior to the ability to intelligently apply a smaller amount of power—has also been shared before, but this is a particularly effective (if bloody) dissemination.
Enough substance to break from the pack; here’s hoping that future volumes pull even farther ahead.