All these men saw when they looked at her was a little girl who’d run away on a whim to search for magic seeds. Who caused trouble. Who was utterly useless in every way except looking pretty. Maybe she was. And if that was true, then being here was only causing more problems for her father. Finally Cleo nodded and turned away.
Such is the characterization of Falling Kingdoms’ primary heroine, Princess Cleiona (Cleo) Bellos, youngest princess to the kingdom of Auranos - she kinda has an idea of what she wants to do, but then gives up quickly (luckily, she’s The Most Beautiful Princess in the Land and gets bailed out by all the men in desperate love with her, thanks to her unparalleled hotness). And such is my problem with so much of Falling Kingdoms - half-hearted characters, simplistic worldbuilding and paint-by-numbers plotting make this a blandly forgettable high fantasy foray.
In Morgan Rhodes’ (the YA pen name for adult urban fantasy & romance author Michelle Rowan) Falling Kingdoms, three neighboring lands hold a tenuous peace that threatens to unravel. To the south is Auranos, a kingdom of wealth and prosperity, ruled by the even-handed King Bellos and his two beautiful daughters, the responsible, elder Emilia and impetuous younger sister Cleo. To the far north is the kingdom of Limeros, ruled by the cruel, power-hungry King Damora who schemes to seize Auranos through any means possible - even if it means manipulation of his powerful young daughter Lucia and her besotted brother, Magnus. Torn between Auranos and Limeros is Paelsia, an impoverished nation renown for its wineries but without resources or power and exploited routinely by Auranos to the south. When King Damora comes with his plans to invade Auranos, the Paelsians are more than happy to join their meager forces to the cause.
Caught in the middle of this political turmoil are four characters - Jonas of Paelsia, who vows revenge on the Auranos royals who swindled his winemaking father and murdered his brother; Princess Cleo of Auranos, who will do anything to save her older sister, even travel to Paelsia even though her life is at risk; Prince Magnus of Limeros, who harbors a forbidden love for his younger sister Lucia; and Princess Lucia, who is the heir to powerful magic, the likes of which could mean the end of everything in all the kingdoms.
At first glance, Falling Kingdoms looks like a competent, promising fantasy novel. Three kingdoms on the brink of war, a varied cast of conflicted characters, the promise of magical involvement - what more could a fantasy lover want? Quite a lot more, unfortunately, is the answer to that not-so-rhetorical question. Falling Kingdoms may have the basic scaffolding upon which many winsome classic fantasy novels are built (yes, yes, including the obvious A Song of Ice and Fire similarities), but this particular book stumbles repeatedly in its execution. In other words, Game of Thrones it ain’t.
The most immediately glaring of these execution missteps lies with the inherent simplicity of the three kingdoms, Auranos, Paelsia, and Limeros. Apparently, in Rhodes’ world, the basic tenets of economic theory (supply and demand, the invisible hand, and so on and so forth) cease to exist. This is seen as the entire kingdom of Paelsia - its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants are all uniformly impoverished. Where the finest, scarcest wines (for which there is ever-increasing demand) fetch ever-decreasing prices. Where no one in the entire kingdom thinks to plant crops other than wine even when imports of food are unaffordable and exports of wine fetch no profit. But I digress - in all other ways, these three kingdoms - which, apparently, are all very close together and easily traversable in a matter of days - are differentiated by their conveniently inverted political beliefs and climate differences. Limeros to the North is pious to the point where they burn suspected witches while it’s cloaked in perpetual winter; Auranos to the South is utterly decadent and frivolous, concerned with parties and libations, blessed with warm weather and hedonistic debauchery; poor Paelsia in-between the two extremes is a gray land of destitute peasants who have been victimized for generations. In other words, it’s a very quaint, Mickey Mouseish approach to different countries in a fantasy setting.
Beyond the bland, derivative world, there’s also the problem of the flat, simplistic characters. In the same vein as any number of multicast fantasy novels, Falling Kingdoms alternates point of view each chapter, building to a convergence of these seemingly disparate storylines - a format that, when done well, is enjoyable. Not so in this book, because the four main characters in this piece are uniformly beautiful caricatures that lack any integrity or emotional depth. Cleo is the most beautiful golden princess of Auranos (her male best friend and bodyguard and probably Jonas are desperately in love with her, of course). Lucia is the darkly beautiful princess of Limeros, whose brother loves her in a most unbrotherly fashion (again, because she’s so damn beautiful, he can’t help himself). Jonas is the handsome peasant who HATES ALL ROYALS FOREVER AND EVER; Magnus is the broodingly gorgeous prince with a dark secret to match his attractive bad boy exterior. This simplification extends beyond the main characters, too - the calculating cruel king of Limeros is also a sadistic torturer who takes pleasure from cruelty to prisoners; his mistress is a sorceress who is wickedly beautiful and always clad in scarlet. You get the picture.
The writing is marginally competent - though annoyingly littered with an abundance of descriptors of characters’ hair and costume, with beautiful eyes widening in shock and sharp breaths being inhaled with surprise - but utterly forgettable. At best, that is what Falling Kingdoms is, exactly: marginally competent, but eminently forgettable.
In Book Smugglerish, a tepid 4 out of 10.