This was a YA dystopian fantasy that actually held my interest — which is pretty rare lately, since I feel like the characters are often flat and the plots tired. This was good enough that I raced through it, though I don’t think it’s good enough that I’ll keep reading in the series.
A tradition holds that the crown prince of Ilara will marry the most beautiful woman of the ocean village of Varenia (though I was a little confused about its location relative to the ocean, since later in the story it sounds like they grew up IN the water). Identical twins Nor and Zadie are unquestionably the prettiest of their generation, and their heartless mother, who feels she should have been chosen in her own time, is obsessed with maintaining the girls’ beauty. It’s clear she doesn’t care about them at all, beyond their physical appearance. (This “prettiest one” trope is done to death in the YA genre, but it was a necessary setup for the rest of the story, so I went with it.) Reckless Nor (who is in many ways Katniss from the Hunger Games) risked her life to save her sister when they were 10, and suffered a tiny scar on her face as a consequence. From that point on, it was clear that Zadie would be the one to marry the prince when the time came… only, Zadie (who is basically Snow White, and sees the best in everyone) fell in love with the governor’s son and wants to stay and marry him. When she finds out that their mercenary mother will betroth Nor to him instead once Zadie is gone, she becomes desperate, and scars herself on purpose–within an inch of her life.
The elders of Varenia believe that Nor injured Zadie on purpose, out of envy, but the king already sent an emissary to meet Zadie (and Nor), and so at least the emissary knows what the girl should look like before she arrives. The elders believe that the cold-hearted king of Ilara is liable to punish their entire village if they send a replacement girl (another suspend your disbelief moment). So they choose to put concealer on Nor’s scar and send her in her sister’s place, pretending to be Zadie.
Turns out, it’s Prince Ceren himself, not the king, who is vicious–the king is kind, but deathly ill. Because of convoluted Ilarian laws, if he dies before Ceren’s 21st birthday, Ceren won’t automatically inherit the throne and Ilara will be cast into chaos (yet another suspend your disbelief moment–these are the rules of the world, nevermind why). It also turns out that the emissary who met the girls was Ceren’s younger half-brother Talin, who was instantly drawn to Nor, and she to him. He also figures out pretty early on that Nor isn’t Zadie. Ceren realizes that his wife to be is in love with his brother, and he’s jealous to the extent that he wants everyone to worship him, though he himself is a heartless sadist who gets progressively more reprehensible as the story goes on.
Political intrigue and minor magic manage to keep the story going and held my interest. While Nor is a character I’ve read many times in YA novels in the past, I like all the various iterations of her enough to have been happy to read one more. Even though this is the first in a series, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger (which I appreciate) so it can be read as a standalone.
My rating: ***1/2
Sexual content: none (I think it’s alluded to in conversation but that’s all)
Violence: present but not graphic
Political content: I don’t recall anything woke