Mini-Reviews: Kill the Queen & The SerpentKill the Queen by Jennifer Estep
Series: Crown of Shards #1
Published by HarperCollins on October 2, 2018
Genres: Fantasy Romance, Action & Adventure, Fantasy
Pages: 480
Source: the publisher

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

Kill the Queen follows Evie, a minor member of the Bellona royal family as she escapes the palace and becomes a magical gladiator in the name of revenge. If that sounds kind of silly to you, well, you’re not entirely wrong. This is a completely unserious fantasy novel and I found it wildly entertaining, if unoriginal.

Jennifer Estep’s Kill the Queen is a great selection for readers who don’t typically reach for fantasy novels. The world building is straightforward and uncomplicated: a vaguely medieval setting, elemental magic, and gladiators. The dialogue has a distinctly modern flair that’s fun and accessible, if poorly suited to the setting. Throw in a pinch of romance and this almost reads like an urban fantasy – not surprising since Estep is one of the genre’s greats. She excels at writing action scenes and a good chunk of the story features killing and stabbing.

Evie doesn’t break the mold as a protagonist, but she holds her own. Eager to survive, she’s spent most of her life hiding her powers – and her thoughts – from everyone around her. The fallout from the massacre forces Evie out of her shell and demands a great deal of courage. Her growth was satisfying and I’m sure that she’ll only become more confident and powerful as the series progresses. There is a faint waft of “special snowflake” energy here but it works well with the story.

Speaking frankly, there were no surprises in Kill the Queen. It was obvious where things would go from the very beginning of the story. Usually this would bother me, or I might find it kind of embarrassing, but I actually had a great time with it. The story was fun and familiar right down to the “twists.” If mild anachronisms and a sprinkling of deus ex machina annoy you, then Kill the Queen is best avoided. I think I would’ve found these elements frustrating in a more serious story, but this time I was strangely unbothered. Readers looking for a fantasy comfort read with a hint of romance will be well served by this.

Mini-Reviews: Kill the Queen & The SerpentThe Serpent by Sarah Fine
Series: The Immortal Dealers #1
Published by 47North on July 1, 2018
Genres: Urban Fantasy
Pages: 316
Source: the publisher

One woman is in a world of otherworldly trouble--and she's going to have to bet her life to save humankind.

Ernestine "Ernie" Terwilliger has put her dreams aside to look after her eccentric mother. Case in point: saving her from a mysterious stranger who's just stormed the terrified woman's antique store wearing a rattlesnake tattoo, leveling threats, and brandishing the weirdest deck of cards Ernie's ever seen.

When Ernie grabs some of the cards and runs, she's launched into a world she never knew existed--one her mother may know more about than she's revealing. With a handful of stolen cards, Ernie has just been made an unwilling player in a game of good versus evil. But she's not even playing with a full deck, and its original owner is more than happy to kill to get his cards back.

Suddenly Ernie's matching wits and plays with the supernatural Immortal Dealers, who can raise empires, damn souls, and shape the world's destiny. It's up to Ernie to defeat the most brutal member of their order. And if her roguish new ally isn't bluffing, he can help. The mystery is all in the cards, and to save her life--and humanity--Ernie had better learn how to deal.

Sarah Fine’s novel The Serpent is the first book in an urban fantasy trilogy loosely inspired by tarot cards.

Ernestine “Ernie” Terwilliger is living a pretty average life. Looking after her eccentric mother takes work, but Ernie can handle it – right up until things go from “eccentric” to downright strange. One moment Ernie is picking up an unusual looking deck of cards and the next, she’s being stalked and threatened by a secretive group of immortal beings. Ones her mom seems to know an awful lot about…

In many ways, The Serpent is an average urban fantasy novel. Some elements of the world building are fun and refreshing, but Fine struggled with the execution. The combination of magical card decks and their associated animal familiars felt random and thrown together. I imagine that Fine will pull back the curtain on how it all fits together in the sequel but since I’m not planning on reading it, I’ll never know. Conceptually, the magical card deck is cool but if that’s the main draw, it’s been done better (see Jenn Stark’s Getting Wilde).

I can forgive somewhat muddled world building, but what really holds The Serpent back is its uninteresting characters. Ernie, her allies, and her enemies – they were all painfully average. Ernie is likeable, down on her luck, and powered by sarcasm. Her love interest Gabe is alluring and mysterious, with a cute Irish accent. Ernie’s family is, predictably, keeping secrets from her that will ultimately put them all in danger. Sound familiar? It should, because these characters could slot seamlessly into half of all urban fantasy stories. I’m not too proud to admit that I love a good character archetype or tropes – when they’re done well.

Unfortunately, The Serpent missed the mark for me.