Zoe Ardelay is living in exile in a small town, mourning the death of her father when am envoy from the Capital comes to grandly inform her that she is to be the King's fifth wife and to whisk her away. At first Zoe is simply numb and still in the throes of her grief. But during the long journey to the capital Zoe learns a few hard truths. And one of them is that she doesn't want to be the fifth wife of the King.
Zoe herself is no simple commoner. Her father and late mother were both members of two of the powerful Five Families of the realm. Her father had angered the King and had been sent to exile. Although young and not completely versed in the intrigues of court life, Zoe is not keen to be lead meekly like a lamb to slaughter. Zoe manages to escape her escort, vowing just to take the time to simply get her breath and learn a bit about the political lay of the land before she presents herself to the King.
During her solitary sojourn, Zoe manages to learn some very important facts was well as some very valuable information about herself. When she finally does present herself to the king, she is no longer a young prodigal returned to the fold, but a powerful person in her own right.
The thing that that really stands out in this book is the interesting cultural landscape and magic system that Shinn creates. The world system is a series of Fives and Threes. There are five elements that form the underpinning of their belief system -- Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Wood. All people and things are made up of a combination of these elements with at least one forming the core of the person's true self and personality. The elementals are paired with a corporeal counterpart to form a distinctly specific characteristic. So, Air is pared with the Soul and is known as Elay
. Earth is paired with the Body and is known as Torz
. Fire is paired with the Mind and is known as Sweela
. Water is paired with Blood and is known as Coru
. And Wood is paired with Bone and is known as Hunti
. Each of the characteristics is the bedrock of one of the Five Families. And each of the Five Families have a head of household known as the Prime that can control their particular characteristic -- both the elemental and the bodily one.
Another fascinating element of the world is the idea of blessings. All persons, when they are born receive three blessings. Three strangers are asked to draw a blessing from a temple basket for a newborn. Such things as courage, beauty, grace, time, resolve, surprise etc. get drawn and are considered very important for the life of the person. Of course various traits are tied to the five elements. At any given time a person can go into a temple and draw three blessings to help them solve a problem, pick a path or just get comfort.
Zoe, through a series of events discovers that she is the long missing Lilander prime. Her mother's Family, the Lilanders, is the family that controls Coru (Water/Blood) and with the death of her maternal grandmother years ago, the Lilander Prime seat has been empty. Zoe learns much to her delight, that water answers to her call, and, as she later discovers, so does Blood. Outside of the world-building a lot of the book is also a bit of self discovery for Zoe. It is a somewhat slower moving narrative with a lot of self reflection. At least the first half is. Once Zoe learns who she is then the book becomes more plot driven and has a bit more action involved.
I really enjoyed Zoe and her self discovery. It was nice to see the transition from naive young woman to a stronger woman who really learns to flex her muscles and really exult in using her power. But I was also somewhat frustrated with Zoe. After being a person who early on was more reflexive and careful, she seemed to lose a bit of that to impulsiveness. Sometimes I felt that she was a little too rash and a little too quick on the draw. At one point she makes a very rash allegation that has some disastrous results. There is also a bit of arrogance in her that I found a little unattractive. She sometimes seemed to feel that she knew best in situations where she was woefully uninformed. But even with these things I couldn't get too angry. They were characteristic of this Coru type person who is surprising and mercurial. Also it is characteristic of a person who was torn away from court during her formative years where she was not able to develop the sophistication and political awareness that the rest of the court denizens have.
This being a Shinn novel there is a romance element. This is by no means a romance novel because the romance is very understated and takes a definite third seat to the character study of Zoe and the world surrounding the people of the Kingdom of Welce. But Darien Serlast the main male protagonist and Zoe's romantic interest is a great foil for her. He is the King's advisor, the ultimate insider to her johnny-come-lately outsider. He is a man of deep secrets and intrigues. And he is Hunti -- Bone and Wood -- as unyielding as she is fluid. Their little dance over the course of the book is very nice to watch. They start out as severe un-equals and slowly they come to a place where they are just right for each other.
A lot of this book felt like set up so I am wondering if this is the start of a series. I hope so. It seems like there is quite a lot of this world left to explore.
I listened to this book on audio and would recommend that as an option as well. The narrator, Jennifer Van Dyck, was perfect for the story. She had an unhurried quality about her reading that fit very well with the mood and movement of the narrative.