The Impostor Queen

Lately, I've been taking my fantasy nice and bleak, preferably with little to no romance.  But to my surprise, I fell head over heels for The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine.  Much like another fantasy romance that stole my heart earlier this year, The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas, The Impostor Queen has incredible world-building, an intricate magic system, and a realistic yet swoon-worthy romance.


But I suppose I should write more than that.  Let me marshal my scattered, emotional thoughts and try to whip up some sort of mildly coherent review.

The veins of copper snaking through the mountains give power and magic to the Kupari people.  They are led by the Valtia, who has fire magic and ice magic in perfect alignment.  She is queen and savior of her people; she is their hope, their love, their light, and their shield.  And now she is dead.

To be fair, Valtias do not live very long.  The brightly-burning magic within them is so strong that they often flame out before reaching the fourth decade of their lives.  That is why, whenever a new girl becomes Valtia, her heir, the Valtia-in-waiting, if you will, also appears.  This girl, called the  Saadella, is marked with a flame symbol on her body.

Since she was a little girl, Elli has trained to be a strong, good, wise Valtia.  As Saadella, she has no magic, and is just an empty vessel for the magic that currently resides within the Valtia.  She longs to be with her Valtia, who is kind and young and brave, but the priests always have her somewhere else.  Now sixteen, Elli wonders when the Valtia will begin teaching her things.  She cannot always be with the three head priests, or with her handmaiden, Mim.

Once a year, the Valtia and the Saadella appear before the people in their full ceremonial attire: white face paint, red lips, elaborate coiffure, and dresses so big they could stand up on their own.  Neither the Saadella nor the Valtia walk--no, that is too common.  They are borne in litters through the common people.  Only this year, things are different.  The ambitious kingdom to the north has been staging raids against the Kupari miners, and as the ceremony unfolds, fishermen fling themselves breathlessly upon the Valtia, warning her that the intruders are crossing the wide lake that protects  the Kupari from their enemies.  At once, she goes out to meet them.  They are destroyed, but so is she.

Elli witnesses the horrifying death of the woman who has been her mother, her sister, her idol, and her friend.  She and the priests wait for the magic to enter her ... and they wait.  Why can she not command a candle to light?  Why can she not freeze water?  The star alignment on the night of Elli's birth matches an old prophecy that foretells the coming of the strongest Valtia of them all.  So what has gone wrong?

"Well, let's torture it out of her!" say the priests.

And this is when Elli finally starts to suspect that these seemingly ageless old men are up to no good.  First, they lock her in a copper box.  Then, they order an initiate to give her forty lashes with a cat o' nine tail.  They dunk her in the lake.  All, supposedly, to "force" the magic into manifesting.  But Elli still has neither fire nor ice.  She is just Elli.

Mim, with whom Elli is in love, but who does not return her romantic affection, arranges for Elli to escape the temple, because the priests have no use for a Valtia without powers.  But Mim never meets up with Elli, who is banished from the city and flees to the mountains, where the thieves and criminals live.  After being grievously wounded, she is rescued by a young man named Oskar, who brings her back to a cave system filled with so-called criminals and thieves so that she can be healed. Here, Elli learns of the true prophecy and her role in its outworking.

She discovers that everything she has lived for has been a lie.

I don't want to spoil the book for you, but I think I can tiptoe around the plot without spilling any secrets.  Although Elli starts out (at least in her own eyes and in those of the people) as the Chosen One archetype--indeed, a special snowflake, if you will--her character develops as she learns to become ordinary.  It's the opposite trajectory from the one taken by many fantasy heroines.  Elli falls from grace instead of being chosen to lead the people.  She hangs out with rogues and criminals and finds them quite to her liking, although they still mistrust her.  And although she loves Mim and always will, her relationship with Oscar slowly changes until each needs the other for survival--in more ways than one.

Sarah Fine weaves many deep themes into The Impostor Queen.  Identity, obviously: how much do you let what others think of you affect your self-perception?  Do you live as others think you should, or do you live for yourself?  The Valtia represents balance: fire and ice magic are perfectly balanced in her.  Elli represents another sort of balance, and I believe that's why her bisexuality was included.  The abuse of power, small and large, also plays a large role in the unraveling of the story.

This is a captivating fantasy with an intricately described magic system.  I shocked myself by really enjoying the romantic aspects of it, and Elli's character development was fascinating.  Fine was not afraid to kill people off left and right, and the ending battle scenes were stomach-turning and terrifying.  Really, the only bad experience I had reading this was coming to the end and realizing I would have to wait for a second book.

And that was probably the worst review I've ever written because The Impostor Queen is indescribably stunning and meticulously crafted.  When this occurs, I simultaneously am overwhelmed with emotion and berift of words.  And that doesn't happen very often.


Digital ARC provided by Edelweiss.


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