I look around, from face to face. We all knew the same thing. We were in this together.

Until the very end.

Sixteen-year-old Tilla is the daughter of Lord Kent, preeminent noble of the Western Province. She is also a bastard—and try as she might to impress her father, there’s no changing the fact that her mother was a lowly serving girl. What Tilla lacks in bloodline-legitimacy, however, she makes up with sass, smarts, and honor. She and Jax, her half-brother—born from the same lowly serving girl mother—figure out their own path for survival. But while Jax is relegated to the stables and is perfectly happy there, Tilla secretly dreams of winning her father’s approval and affection. 

So, when the royal heir apparent, Princess Lyriana, visits the Western Province, Tilla never would have dreamed that she’d end up befriending the future ruler of the entire kingdom. Instead of sitting at the table of honor, the Princess chooses to sit next to the Bastards—Tilla and her childhood friend Miles of House Hempstedt included. What’s more, the Princess wants to see more of the kingdom through the Bastards’ eyes, and so sneaks out later that night as Tilla, Jax, Miles, and a Northern warrior (and another Bastard) named Zell  head out for a night of covert revelry.

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Their midnight adventure is cut short, however, when the group discovers a foul plot of rebellion, murder, and magic most deadly—all instigated by the Bastards’ noble parents in a cunning play to kill Lyriana and win independence from their Eastern overlords. Now, Tilla, Jax, Miles, and Zell are on the run from their own parents, desperate to protect Lyriana and deliver her home safely—hopefully in time to stop a civil war that could tear their world apart.

The debut novel from Andrew Shvarts, Royal Bastards takes an awesome concept—the bastard offspring of wealthy and powerful lords—and pits them against their parents. Unlike other Bastard-vs-Parent storylines, however, Royal Bastards layers an additional complexity in which the children aren’t out for power or glory, necessarily, but are driven to rebel against their parents in order to do the “right” thing. And there’s an even further level of moral ambiguity in the mix, as the bastards don’t really know if what they’re doing is truly right—though they will protect Lyriana fiercely and know she shouldn’t be killed for the political whims of their parents, the young adults question their loyalties. By protecting the Princess heir, are they dooming the fate of the Western Province and its freedom? Shvarts does a fantastic job of exploring these moral threads of duty and honor with each of the different Bastards, especially in Tilla and Miles’ varying perspectives. 

Beyond the the awesomeness of the premise and the moral complexities therein, Royal Bastards truly shines in terms of its ensemble cast. I loved Tilla and her open, forthright narrative—as a heroine, Tilla’s honesty and no-nonsense approach to the problems facing her and her friends are incredibly refreshing to read. I also love the relationships between Tilla and each of the other Bastards: her loving bond with her brother, the attraction she feels to Zell, the tension of the childhood friendship she has with Miles, and her growing respect and love for her newest friend, Lyriana. I love that the two female characters in this story are not pitted against each other; nor are they disrespectful, envious, or suspicious of the other. Every one of the Bastards—Lyriana included—are friends, and become family. Together, the group trusts and relies on one another to survive the fight ahead.

The only real complaints I have for this book are two-fold. First, I wished that there was a little more time and attention devoted to the worldbuilding and political background. There should be a complex background to the rebellion, to the simmering tensions between the Western Province and the central government and it’s alluded to and discussed at a high level, but never in the kind of depth that I had hoped for.

The other complaint for Royal Bastards is that it was often times jarringly anachronistic—Tilla speaks and thinks in modern, twenty-first century phrasings, which caught me off guard initially. However, it all kind of eventually gels together and works, in A Knight’s Tale type of way. I also like that there are many modern sensibilities in this particular story—for example, the awesomely shame-free view of teen sex—which worked beautifully framed in Tilla’s voice. 

There’s action, romance, melodrama, and the looming threat of war—what else could you want in a YA fantasy novel? I’ll certainly be back to continue Tilla’s adventures in the next book.

In Book Smugglerish, 7 mage-killer bombs out of 10.