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The Pretender's Crown
C.E. Murphy
Del Rey, 465 pages

The Pretender's Crown
C.E. Murphy
C.E. Murphy was born in 1973 in Alaska. C.E., who goes by Catie in real life, has written fantasy novels, short stories and comic books. She has also written a romance novel trilogy under the pseudonym Cate Dermody. She currently lives in Ireland.

C.E. Murphy Website
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SF Site Review: The Queen's Bastard

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Tammy Moore

It has been ten days since the events of The Queen's Bastard; since Belinda Primrose was exposed to the Gallin court, escaped a Gallin prison and laid a trap to kill a Gallin queen. She is home now, back in Aulun, in her mother's kingdom. That is no surety of safety. Her father, the Queen's beloved Robert, is still missing, Belinda has been undone -- frayed if not entirely unravelled -- by her time as Beatrice Irvine and Sandalia's death has riled Echonia to war.

The fragile web of power and allegiance that kept the peace has been shattered. Led by Javier de Castille, tormented by the witchpower he fears is evil and the memory of the woman he loved, the Ecumenic Princes amass their armies to bring their full might down on apostate Aulun. To the east the Imperatrix Irina waits to see which side to offer the support of vast Khazar and behind the thrones men who wield the witchpower watch with satisfaction.

Dragged into the light after years spent serving in the shadows Belinda must find a way to reconcile loyalties that have never before come into conflict: to Lorraine, to her father and his strange masters, to Aulun and to the world.

The Pretender's Crown is both a fitting sequel to The Queen's Bastard and a book of an entirely different colour. Still well-written and tightly plotted, still an immersive and addictive read... but different. Better.

Despite the quality of world-building in The Queen's Bastard the narrative itself was focused tightly on Belinda. It was very much a novel about her and her formative experiences. In The Pretender's Crown the focus is much wider and we see the scale of events precipitated by Belinda's actions in the first book. This wider focus is reflected in the way the narrative viewpoint dashes across the geography of Echonia, from Aulun to Essandia, from Essandia to Khazar.

The switching viewpoints serve the novel, they give the narrative a sense of urgency and also show the sheer scale of the novel. How an action taken by one person can spill over to influence people and events in ways they never imagined and can never know.

People, of course, are the core of this novel. C.E. Murphy's skill at characterization continues to impress. She doesn't do villains. None of the people we see in the pages of The Pretender's Crown are evil or wicked. They might be angry or selfish or ambitious, but never in so simplistic a way that the reader can't sympathise with them even if they disagree with their goals. She kills not only her but our darlings, and then gives us others to make up for it.

Lorraine was the character I liked least from The Queen's Bastard. She was a capricious, cold woman who made her bastard into a weapon and never even offered them a kiss. Within a few pages of The Pretender's Crown my opinion of her had shifted. She was no kinder, no less brutally pragmatic, to herself than she was to Belinda and she loved her country so much there was nothing but slivers left for anyone else.

Yet I couldn't hope for her to win, because then I would have hoped for Prince Rodrigo to lose. Javier de Castille's royal uncle was a stiffly pious cipher in the first novel -- unseen except through other character's eyes -- yet he is a ruler no less pragmatic than Lorraine, though more troubled by his decisions, and a man devastated by the destruction of his family but still capable of wry humour.

Much as I enjoyed meeting those characters, however, it is still Belinda who is the main character, our protagonist. I was worried when I opened the book that she would be either changed entirely from the character I had so enjoyed in The Queen's Bastard or, worse, completely untouched by everything that had happened. I should have had more faith. The ghost of Beatrice haunts Belinda throughout the novel, agitating her stillness and stirring her to both laughter and imprudence. Belinda struggles to exorcise her alter-ego's influence, to become her mother's secret weapon again, even as the bedrock of her life crumbles from under her. It's an effort doomed to failure, but the person she becomes is both still Belinda and full of potential.

It is a clever touch that for their witchpower it is the essential humanity of their offspring -- their loyalties, their fears, their taboos -- that threatens to undo all of Robert Drake and Dmitri's plans.

This is rapidly becoming one of my favourite fantasy series and each novel manages to both answer my questions and raise new ones. The Pretender's Crown neatly wraps up all the loose ends from The Queen's Bastard -- wars are won or lost, grudges settled, recompense made -- and picks loose new ones for us to worry at.

What of the Ecumenic Church? What of the silver Queens and their plans? Where next?

With each new book this series gets better and more engrossing. If you read The Queen's Bastard then you should definitely read this. If you haven't then go read it now and come back to this one. It's worth it.

Copyright © 2009 Tammy Moore

Tammy Moore is a speculative fiction writer based in Belfast. She writes reviews for Verbal Magazine, Crime Scene NI and Green Man Review. Her first book The Even -- written by Tammy Moore and illustrated by Stephanie Law -- is to be published by Morrigan Books September 2008.

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