My exam is over and I passed – yay! Let’s celebrate by looking at something new and exciting.
The Scarecrow Queen was written by Melinda Salisbury and first published in 2017. It is the final instalment of The Sin Eater’s Daughter trilogy and is preceded by The Sin Eater’s Daughter (2015) and The Sleeping Prince (2016). The novel carries on exactly where the previous book left off, so please note that you really need to read them in sequence to have the faintest idea of what’s going on.
From his seat in Lormere, Prince Aurek has absolute control. The people are too afraid of his golem army to rise against him and, with Errin and Silas taken captive, all hopes of deconstructing the Opus Magnum seem to have been lost. With only Hope, Nia and Kirin left for support, Twylla flees across the land in search of a safe haven but there is none to be found. One by one, all of the kingdoms are falling to the Sleeping Prince.
It’s not long before Twylla realises what needs to be done. Aurek can’t be allowed to remain in power. It’s up to her to rally the support of the oppressed peasants, gathering them together and training them to fight. Although Aurek’s army is vast, they only follow him because they are afraid. Using the things that she learned as Daunen Embodied, Twylla knows that she can restore the thing that he has taken from them: their hope.
In Lormere Castle, Errin must face a struggle of her own. Not only is she the prisoner of Aurek, but she is bound by magic to obey his whims. She knows that if she slips up he can easily order her to kill herself or, worse still, take out his anger on Silas. Yet she also has hope. Behind Aurek’s back, she plots with Merek – planning an escape for both them and their friends. Yet their alliance is wrought with danger. One mistake would reveal to Aurek that the former King of Lormere hides right under his nose, and would result in a painful death for them both…
This novel is another difficult one for me to review. If you read my previous posts about this trilogy, you’ll know that I regard it very highly. I love Salisbury’s writing and the dark world that she has created. Yet The Scarecrow Queen was a disappointing end to Twylla’s story. It’s not that it’s a bad book – not by any means – but it just didn’t blow me away like the previous instalments did.
To begin with the positive, the first half of this novel was tense, well-paced and as enthralling as ever. I’m not generally a fan of stories that contain multiple different perspectives, but in this instance it did work. The Scarecrow Queen contained chapters that were told in first person (from the perspective of either Twylla or Errin), and chapters in third person that gave a more general view of what was going on in the castle. This allowed the author to focus on the movements of both protagonists, detailing Errin’s plans for escape and Twylla’s attempts to rally a band of rebels. And it handled this excellently.
For these first chapters, the book was hard to put down. I’d come to love both narrators from the previous books and this time both found themselves in great danger. It truly was nail-biting writing, as Twylla saw the effects that Aurek’s regime had on the populous at large, while Errin experienced his terribly cruelty first hand. Trouble was, the novel just couldn’t sustain this into the second act.
One of the things that I loved about the first book was its lack of action. It was a deeply political story as told by someone on the side-lines, who wasn’t really involved in the events and didn’t fully appreciate what was going on. Unfortunately, that just didn’t work here. The story escalates rapidly towards a war that we never see. We experience a little of Twylla training her army and ordering missions, but we see nothing that indicates scale or cost. The threat does not seem that pressing as the reader experiences a lot of it second hand. Characters die unseen, and the final push against Aurek is both fast and shockingly simple.
I can’t really talk about the ending that much as I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s say that it went down with more of a whimper than a bang. The climax of the novel takes up less than thirty pages of a book that’s four hundred and twenty-three pages long. Of this, only four pages are spent on Twylla’s final face-off against Aurek. Given how dangerous and frightening the Sleeping Prince is – how much pain he’s caused over the course of the series – this just felt weak. I expected a lot more, but in the end he just didn’t go out with much of a fight.
That’s probably about all I can say about the plot, let’s take a look at the characters. As I look back over the series, I now can see that the only protagonist who received any decent development was Twylla. In the climax of this story, Twylla finds herself once more in the dungeons of Lormere and, at this point, it becomes quite clear how much she’s changed in her journey.
Back in The Sin Eater’s Daughter she was naïve, indecisive and half-brainwashed by the Queen’s lies. By the close of The Scarecrow Queen, she’s grown in strength and confidence. Yet, most importantly, she hasn’t become super-human. She doubts, she cries, and she worries. The stony exterior that she projects is purely to inspire her troops – to raise their confidence by hiding the fact that she fears failure – and that is true strength. It made me fall in love with her all over again.
The only thing that seemed shoe-horned in to her character arc was her sudden attraction to Merek. This only really pops up in the last third of The Scarecrow Queen, and I must admit that I’m not sure where it came from. They’d never been in love previously. Sure, Merek adored her in The Sin Eater’s Daughter, but Twylla never reciprocated. Her sudden jealousy and physical attraction to him felt forced, adding a lot of unnecessary tension. I just couldn’t buy it, or the random drama that it caused in the build up to the climax.
Beyond Twylla, no one else really received any kind of development in the story. While Errin is important during the first half of the book, she slowly fades from significance following her escape from Lormere. The deconstruction of the Opus Magnum is her only contribution to the climax, and this difficult piece of pharmacy is figured out by her almost immediately (and off-page). The other named characters also don’t get any chance to shine as the narrative eye is never turned upon them. We never feel Aurek’s hold weakening, and Silas is virtually absent from proceedings. Sure, we’re often told about them, but this isn’t the same thing as seeing what is happening first-hand.
Yet my largest issue with this story is Lief. I confess, I don’t understand Lief at all. His actions in the story are erratic and self-serving, sometimes seeming to hinder Aurek but more than often betraying his loved ones in service of the Sleeping Prince. I’d hoped that this book would explain his motivation, as I assumed that it must be incredibly complex, yet we don’t get anything approximating this. Lief’s behaviour is never explained. The closest we get is a throwaway comment about how he got in over his head. Got into what? Why did he ever decide to become Aurek’s right hand man? How could he betray his family and lead them into such danger? Why didn’t he give up the identity of Merek to Aurek when he had the chance? I have no explanation, but I truly wish that I did.
So, I guess that’s a good point to wrap up this review. All in all, I have loved this series but I must admit that I found the ending to be disappointingly weak. Yet based on earlier instalments, I’d still recommend it for fantasy fans as it contains some great writing and fantastic female characters. It certainly makes me curious to see what Salisbury will write next.
The Scarecrow Queen can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk