Hail isn’t your average princess. For one thing, she ran away from home at the age of 18, leaving behind her home, family, and Empress mother, leader of the Indranan Empire, in order to hunt down her father’s murderer. For the next 20 years, Hail works hard for a living and for her freedom—she gets really good at gunrunning, and becomes captain of her own spaceship and crew. All of that hard work, however, comes to a screeching halt when two Trackers come to find Hail and bring her back home, bearing terrible news: her sisters have all been murdered, her mother is deeply ill, and Hail is now the heir to the Indranan throne.

Heartbroken and reluctant, Hail gives up her former life of negotiating with criminals and trades her blaster for ornamental jewelry. Soon, however, she finds that the Indranan court isn’t altogether too different from gunrunning. Hail might not be the first choice for Indranan’s future leader, but she’s determined to do her duty and become the best leader she can be for her people. First, though, Hail has business to settle—figuring out why all of her beloved sisters are dead, and who is trying to assassinate her before she is coronated as Empress.  

The debut science fiction novel from K.B. Wagers, Behind the Throne, is a delight. The first book in a planned duology (I think), Wagers takes a familiar premise—runaway princess who doesn’t want to be leader but is dragged into the fray—but adds in her own wonderful twists and flair. I love the fact that Hail isn’t a twenty-something character, who is as smart as she is beautiful. No, Hailimi is 38 years old, and has a TON of experience under her belt. After working her way up the smuggling ladder, she becomes a captain of her own ship and a leader in her own right—all of that is before she is recalled to the throne. When she deals with conniving cousins, meddling matriarchs, and advisors and bodyguards who overstep their bounds, Hail’s instincts, fighting skills, and negotiation tactics come very much in handy. I loved watching Hail navigate the intricacies of Indranan court, as well as her ability to read people and trust her gut. (On a more superficial note, I love that Hail has modified her looks after trying to escape the empire as an 18 year old and how she is proud of her wild green hair and lanky genemod frame—and none of this is magically fixed in the book.)

I also was digging the world that Wagers builds in Behind the Throne: a matriarchal society, in which men are distinctly less-important and powerful than women, and where it is frowned upon for a princess or Empress to have male Trackers as her closest bodyguards. In addition to being matriarchal, the Empire is also loosely modeled on Hindu religion and culture—the gods that Hail references, the dress, and names of the main characters, but most importantly the belief system of which the society rests. I don’t think Wagers is completely successful in either the matriarchal society or the Hindu world. It’s a little frustrating that the main female character has actually no close female advisors or friends—most of her interactions are with the men she trusts with her life, for example—but I appreciate the effort at creating such a world. (If nothing else, there’s plenty of room for growth and strength in book 2.)

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Far more interesting and better developed in my opinion are the characters and relationships Hail builds in Behind the Throne. I love the supporting duo of Trackers Emmory and Zin, a team of elite bodyguards who are sent to drag Hail back home but who quickly become her most trusted friends and advisors. Emmory is gruff and all-business (and also the brother to the man Hail loved), while Zin is a little more open and good-natured. I loved that Hail could have a nonromantic relationship with two men who she trusts to keep her safe, and that she deeply respects their opinions and cares for them as individuals. Even better than the relationship of trust and friendship between Hail and her bodyguards, however, is the fragile, tricky relationship Hail has with her mother, the ailing Empress. The two never saw eye-to-eye before Hail left, and upon her return, the squabbling begins once again (that is, when the Empress is coherent and not lost to the fog of dementia). I loved watching their relationship change as the two formidable women test their boundaries and try to figure out how to coexist—how the both of them, ultimately, care for eachother even if they aren’t able to say that they do in so many words. Sometimes things don’t get tied up in big pretty bows and we don’t get to say the things we want to those we love before they die. That’s life, and I really appreciate the way that Hail handles this grief.

In terms of actual storyline, Behind the Throne is essentially a mystery, with Hail desperate to figure out who wants her and her entire direct family dead. The book is a fast read and Wagers writes action very nicely—although the mystery angle is fairly predictable with transparent villains. Still, these villains aren’t actually the endgame villains—there’s plenty left unresolved for Hail’s next adventure.

All that is to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Behind the Throne, and I cannot wait to read book 2 out this December. Long may Hail reign.

In Book Smugglerish, 7 smuggled weapons out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.