Book Review: The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.

Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.

Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.

In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint. 

CW: drug addiction

This book was nowhere on my radar and I hadn’t even seen much promos or reviews of it. But then I saw my favorite author Tasha Suri gush about it endlessly on Twitter and I couldn’t resist the temptation.

The author seems to be a poet and this is her debut novel, and that doesn’t surprise me at all, because the prose in this book is exquisite. It has been a long time since I’ve highlighted so many lines and paragraphs in a fantasy novel and I can’t wait to revisit this again because I’m sure I’ll find more gems on a reread. The author is also extremely good at creating tension and the buildup is intense, with me waiting page after page to see where the next strike would come from, who would live and who would die, who is trustworthy and who isn’t. The plot is quite a bit of slow burn, and there’s more of planning and scheming and thinking involved rather than action, so it may not be for fans of more fast paced fantasy. The only little gripe I had was that I could guess who the traitor was very early on and I think the gut punch may have been stronger if it was more of a surprise.

I also enjoyed the world building and magic system here. First coming to the magic, it’s elemental – so not something very new, and the magic wielders are persecuted, which is also a tried and tested trope. And while we don’t get to see a lot of magic in action, the few fighting scenes were excitingly written and I can’t wait to see how much more explosive it will get when the main villain shows up in the next installment. The world also is interesting here, with a new ruler of Elira being chosen from among the leaders of five city-rulers by an appointed Councillor. There are existing tensions with two border kingdoms as well as an older foe, the White Queen – and I loved how the author wrote about strategies to implement in the conflict, not just limiting them to war but also to trade. However, even within Elira, each city has its own culture and traditions, and there are old feuds between them, and the author creates great tension between all the representatives as well as letting us experience the shifting dynamics when they all get to know each other. And to round off everything, we have unexpected magical beasts making an entrance which only takes the excitement up a notch.

Lysande is the kind of protagonist I love – a scholar who has read all the classic literature, military and strategy accounts and probably even some of the banned stuff – and who thinks through everything twice over before acting on it. She is an orphan who made it as a palace scholar only due to the benevolence of the Iron Queen Sarelin. But the nobles don’t like seeing her position elevated because she is a commoner, and she has to carefully thread the needle of showing the power of her new position as Councillor, as well as pick the nobles who might not mind her being their new patron. It is a fascinating interplay between power and privilege, never knowing which one will tip the balance of the scales.

At times, I was frustrated with how much Lysande idolized the now dead Queen but also appreciated when she came to see her faults as well, and learnt how she could be a different kind of ruler, prioritizing all of her people who are in need. She starts off with only the good intention of wanting to protect her kingdom, and maybe make the lives of people better while fighting their prejudices – but power is heady and it was so engrossing to see her get slowly seduced both by the idea of being powerful as well as being an object of adulation for the people. But she also has a drug problem which she is in constant denial of and I can’t wait to see how that will affect her during the long run.

The story is essentially about how Lysande deals with the four city-rulers who are up for the throne next, while navigating treacherous waters within, as well as from outside the kingdom from an older and powerful enemy. I enjoyed her observations about whomever she meets, and how she analyses their behaviors and decides how much she can trust them. All of the city-rulers were fascinating in their own right but Luca Fontaine was an enigma right from when his name was first mentioned, and me along with Lysande only wanted to know more about him. Litany is another amazing young woman who starts off as Lysande’s personal attendant, but grows to be her shadow and confidant and I couldn’t love their bond more.

In the end, this was an exquisitely crafted political fantasy from the perspective of a scholar. If you are interested in a book with slow burn Machiavellian politics, a whole cast of very contrasting characters, a smart protagonist whose mind will wow you, a queernormative world where there are dangers and betrayals at every turn – then this debut fantasy will not disappoint you. And now I’m just sad that I have wait atleast an year for the next one.

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