While I am a big fan of scifi, space opera and urban fantasy, to say that I am generally allergic to quasi-medieval fantasy would be a huge understatement. I can count the number of 'medieval' fantasy books I liked on one hand. Possibly a mutilated one with half the fingers missing.
Well, now another novel has been added to that tiny list - The Hedgewitch Queen
by Lilith Saintcrow (who apparently writes urban fantasy. I think I have a new author I need to check out). THQ is set in what is essentially a fantasy version of southern France during the High Middle Ages. Our protagonist and narrator is Viviane, a lady-in-waiting to the princess and distantly related to the royal line. When the novel opens, Viviane is a consummate court lady and the biggest problems facing her are keeping court intrigues from harming her princess and practicing her hedgewitch skills in peace (hedgewitching is viewed as peasant magic, as opposed to court sorcery). But within hours of the opening, Viviane's world is in ruins - the king, the princess and all the ladies-in-waiting except for her are assassinated and the King's brother, the leader of the coup, declares himself the new King.
Viviane goes on the run with Tristan d'Arcenne, the captain of the King's guard and his men, who are determined to declare her the new Queen. In the process, she develops strength, confidence and pragmatism, decides what it is she really wants and is capable of, gets to be the owner (or is it the ownee?) of the magical amulet that activates in the presence of the true heir, deals with death, illness and nightmares. Oh, and finds out that there are dark secrets everywhere, some of which may destroy what is left of her world.
So, why did I love it so, when most medieval fantasy books annoy me like the plague?
a. I like the writing style. It's first person narrative, which can be a hit or miss, but here the almost-claustrophobic feeling being only in Viviane's head gives us, is oddly fitting. Viviane's world has been destroyed and narrowed to (for most of the book) escape and survival and a very small group of people. Plus, I think the main thread here is how Viviane grows into her role and, seeing how self-possessed she is, if we were looking at her from the outside, a lot of this struggle and inner growth would be lost to the readers.
b. It's not high fantasy. Sure, there is magic and some interference by Gods in the world, but there aren't dragons, multiple races of elves or whatever. It really is very close to High Middle Ages, an area of particular interest to me. In a lot of ways, it's like a darker, denser version of one of those Lais of Marie de France, which had magic of their own. (Caution - for worldbuilding purists, there might be things that bug you here - this is supposed to be a society with matrilineal descent but some things don't seem to fit what that would do to the society. It doesn't bug me, but MMV. Also some names for things are fake-medieval which might also be a drawback. I liked the rest of it enough to overlook).
c. The characters. There aren't any characters in this I love but all main characters are uniformly interesting and complicated (OK, maybe not the villain, who is just plain bad. I am mildly surprised we didn't see him eating a puppy).
d. The main relationship. If you guys like intense and really dysfunctional, come right in. Viviane/Tristan is pretty much a goldmine for a therapist, except I don't think they have them even in a fantasy version of High Middle Ages. It's a rare book where I ended it convinced both that (a) they really love each other (b) I don't think of a way they can stay together, and not due to outside forces, but due to their own stuff. (Trying to be unspoilery here). I suppose we'll find out in The Bandit King, the second part of the duology, coming out this summer.
e. I really like the plot - there is a lot of adventure, twists etc. Nor is every twist predictable, though unlike a lot of people (if amazon is anything to go by), ( Spoiler for the ending twist )
Rather random, but when I read the book, I kept seeing this famous pre-Raphaelite painting. It's freakishly appropriate:
Tbh, I was perhaps wrong when I thought of Marie de France. It's more like a verbal pre-Raphaelite paintings - intense colors and beauty and middle ages through a very misty mirror.
I've seen some reviewers mention faint shadows of Jacqueline Carey's famous "Kushiel" series, but since I loathed that so much I not only stopped a quarter in, I actually threw out my copy, I am in no position to speak to that. (Yes, I know everyone loves it. The s&m is not my bag, to put it mildly).
So, go read. It's dark and smart and intense and wonderful.