By Alana Joli Abbott
I have a soft spot in my heart for courtly intrigue. One of my favorite novels from my formative reading years was (and remains) Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel (Goodreads), in which a country-bred countess and her brother challenge a corrupt king’s reign—and completely upend the status quo of their kingdom, but not in the way they expected. Meliara is a prickly heroine, determined to believe she knows better than everyone else (until she realizes how out of her depth she is), and her navigation of both rebellion and politics made me fall in love with the genre of scandals and internal maneuverings of a royal court.
But I’ve found that within that genre, I especially love the stories where the characters have pure motives (rather than those where they’re amoral power-seekers hoping to rise to the throne—although I’ve heard there’s quite a good series about that, up until the TV version’s Season 8). I’m more interested in the misunderstood struggle, the role where the right path may not be easy or evident, but the characters strive for it, nonetheless. Two recent series—one manga, one YA fantasy—perfectly fit into that place in my heart. Here’s why you should read them (and keep an eye out for their continuing sagas).
We all know the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover (here at Outland, we strive to make gorgeous covers that accurately reflect the book) but I have to admit, the cover art by Charles Chaisson for Raybearer hooked me even before I got to the description. This debut novel from Jordan Ifueko definitely lived up to my expectations.
In the story, Tarisai’s mother, known only as The Lady, has given her the education she needs to become a member of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11—everything except love. Tarisai practically worships her mother, and when The Lady gives her a magical command to kill a person she reveals in a portrait, Tarisai is shocked. It gets worse when Tarisai makes the realization that her mother’s target is the Crown Prince—and the prince is a good person, who could become a great leader if given the chance and the right people at his side. Tarisai could be one of those advisors on the Council of 11, but the magical command won’t just vanish, and Tarisai has to find a way to create a life, and a destiny, of her own in order to become the person her empire needs.
The elements I love are there: Tarisai is a hero I love to love. She seeks good in all her choices, and more, she seeks justice. Defining that justice becomes crucial for her character, and it’s clear that the second book will revolve around this theme as well. The supporting cast are also phenomenal; while The Lady is drawn as a villain, even she evokes sympathy, and those who have chosen to side with her against the king have reasons for doing so. But the king, while sometimes in the wrong, isn’t a villain either, and his son, while imperfect, is the kind of supporting character readers will root for. (Even better, he’s not the love interest, which creates a very cool dynamic of a very powerful, intergender friendship that doesn’t have to do with romance. The romance that does build between Tarisai and her love interest is a sweet meeting of hearts that’s still fraught by the knowledge of who she is and what she’s cursed to do.)
While the strength of this novel falls onto the shoulders of its incredibly well-built cast of very human characters, Ifueko’s world-building is a close second. The nations that are part of the empire reference many real-world cultures, and the discussion about diversity vs. unity that takes place within the book is a challenging one that Ifueko never shies away from. The magic is glorious, whether it’s the link among the members of the Council, their own unique gifts, or the magical creatures that inhabit the world—all of it feels enchanting, the way that well-written magic should.
For a court intrigue with an unwilling assassin who would rather be a hero, this is a delightful fit, and I’m very much looking forward to the sequel, Redemptor, when it releases in August.
Just this month, another would-be assassin infiltrated an imperial court in the first volume of a new VIZ manga, The King’s Beast by Rei Toma (better known for Dawn of the Arcana). The inequality of this world is clearer than the slow reveal in Raybearer: here, Ajin, who are magical humanoids with animal characteristics, are second class citizens. Despite their powerful gifts, they’re controlled and contained by the more populous humans. Boy Ajin who exhibit gifts may be selected to become servants to the imperials. When Rangetsu’s twin brother, Sogetsu, is chosen to become the fourth prince’s beast servant, Rangetsu is initially relieved. He’ll be safe, she thinks. He won’t have to face the oppression that the rest of the Ajin see. (Rangetsu herself is destined to hold a low-class job, if she’s not forced to become a prostitute.)
But there’s no safety in the palace. When Sogetsu is killed, supposedly by the fourth prince himself, Rangetsu dedicates herself to becoming the most dangerous killer an Ajin can be. She has to be exemplary (and disguise herself as a boy) to become the beast servant to the fourth prince. It’s the only way she’ll ever be able to kill him and get her revenge. But as soon as she earns her position, she begins to realize that Prince Tenyou isn’t the murderer—and in fact, Tenyou wanted to seek justice for Sogetsu himself. The two form an uneasy partnership to get to the bottom of the murder, even if it means unraveling the imperial court.
Rei Toma lets the art tell the story in many places, and the linework is gorgeous, with plenty of action sequences and palpable tension in the placement of characters. While lacking the depth of a longer work (readers are likely to get the firmer world building and character development through the next few volumes), this is a great hook for what looks to be a mystery-fantasy-action story, with some commentary on gender roles and likely a future romance. (Rangetsu’s secret girlhood isn’t likely to stay secret over the course of the series.) Tenyou’s soft heart is a perfect foil for a cold-hearted assassin who’s given up caring about anyone after her brother’s death, and I hope that the two will become the team the story promises in this first volume. (The right to left format of the book is another plus for manga fans, and the fact that 2021 has the first four volumes schedule means the wait to the deeper story won’t be long.)
For readers who love unraveling court intrigue alongside characters seeking to right the wrongs of their worlds, both of these are well worth the read.