The Story: The Orphan Queen, the first in a two-book series by Jodi Meadows, is about the trials, travels, and travails of Princess Wilhelmina who seeks to obtain a throne that’s rightfully hers. When the neighboring Indigo Kingdom destroys her home and family, Wil ventures out with her fellow displaced countrymen to the heart of enemy territory. But Wil has to go undercover in order to learn the truth – a truth that will take her into many dangerous, dark places and force her to not only use her outlawed magic but also align herself with a mysterious mercenary who just might be harboring secrets of his own.
My Take: I went back and forth in wanting to check this novel out as, on the surface, it sounds interesting and has a gorgeous cover (yes, I’m a sucker for a good cover) yet some of the negative reviews held me back. But when Amazon had it listed at a super-low price for Kindle, I decided to take a chance and check it out. While, much like some reviewers have claimed, the novel isn’t entirely original, it still makes up for it by being a speedy read and having an engaging premise.
I’m not sure why stories showcasing displaced royalty resonate with me (as I’m certainly not royalty!), but there’s just something about seeing characters who rightfully belong in one world or in one position yet have to reclaim said world or position because they’ve been unfairly removed from it or denied it. It’s a classic payoff where a good character is reaching for the ultimate prize that you sense will be worth it, but it’s a matter of actually getting the prize and by what means they’ll take to finally claim it.
Such is the case of this novel’s lead protagonist and chief narrator, Wilhelmina (Wil for short), who is actually a princess but whose land and crown have been taken from her. Thus, the bulk of the plot focuses on how she will reclaim her kingdom, but she’s not alone in her quest. Accompanying her are the children of other displaced royals who go by the title the Ospreys, and they’re essentially a gang of mercenaries who want to place Wil back on the throne. Easy enough, but getting there certainly won’t be easy.
Wil and her comrades eventually travel to the Indigo Kingdom, the political power responsible for Wil’s current state in the first place. She and close friend Mel disguise themselves as displaced royalty and enter into the Indigo Kingdom’s courts to hob nob with the nobility while trying to find chinks in their proverbial armor. But nothing is ever as it seems, much like Wil herself.
For starters, I like the concept of hidden identities and, while it’s not entirely original, I think it’s executed nicely here. First, Wil assumes various identities in order to blend in and not be discovered for who and what she really is. In the same way, she also can do powerful magic, something that’s been outlawed for years; thus, her very existence is nearly illegal. Overall, Wil is a fun character – at times a little immature but she’s still brave in the face of danger and won’t stand for betrayal, even from people she knows.
In the same way, we have the identity of the mysterious Black Knife, a mythical mercenary, to explore. For those of you who can’t stand not knowing the true identity of a character who has a hidden identity, let me assure you that’s not the case here. Before the novel’s end, we learn who Black Knife is and, while it didn’t come across as a jaw-drop moment for me, I was still surprised because I wasn’t 100% sure I knew who he was anyway. He is a fun addition to the cast as he’s clearly serving the role of a mythic Robin Hood-esque character and it works, especially as he tries to encourage and essentially teach Wil to use her in-born magical abilities. You find yourself cheering him on even though it’s not clear if he’s a good guy who does bad things or a bad guy who occasionally does good deeds. But in the end, you find out exactly who he is and why he does what he does, and it’s a satisfying explanation.
While the plot itself has been done before, this novel manages to add in good doses of betrayal and espionage that kept me reading. The writing is a bit easy to breeze through but that seems to be a trait common to YA. However, I found myself going back to this novel because I just had to know what was going to happen next, as literally at any moment Wil’s ruse could be blown. While it’s not exactly nail-biting, it did keep me turning pages, which most novels fail to succeed at. While some of the plot points I could predict, some I could not and some, though I suspected what was going to happen, still had a twist I didn’t see coming. All in all, it was well plotted and I didn’t catch myself speed-reading, which is normally what I do if I feel a story has come to a stand still and I just want to move on.
In terms of world-building, I will give Jodi Meadows credit that she does her best to show us how the story’s world works rather than subject us to page after page of exposition. Likewise, this is the first book in a two-book series, so it’s possible that some of the questions I had while reading this first novel will be answered in the second book (which I haven’t yet read but I certainly plan to). The descriptions in the novel were effective, especially regarding the Indigo Kingdom and its various locations Wil visits and spends most of her time. Everything comes alive for you so you don’t feel like events and characters occur and exist in a blank space.
Naturally, being a fantasy novel, magic and magical creatures are present here but don’t consume much of the story’s space. If I had any real criticism, it would be that I would have liked a little more magic to be displayed. Granted, this is a world where magic is outlawed, so the fact that characters have to be smart about how, when, and why they use their magic makes sense. But the scenes where Wil utilized her unique brand of magic, especially against her enemies, was impressive. Likewise, we get a glimpse of some seemingly ordinary creatures infected by the Wraith, a form of dark magic that permeates and essentially infects the land. The concept of the wraiths was also handled well and you can genuinely feel the dread they inspire whenever they’re discussed, much less make an appearance, so they’re not some random evil force or power thrown in just to have an antagonist.
A second small flaw I had this novel was, of course, its love triangle, with Wil in the middle and at least three potential male interests. One, I confess, was a long shot seeing her initial relationship with him, but the other two remained in the realm of possibility. While it’s fairly obvious who she chooses, their relationship is still put in jeopardy. That being said, while I think who Wil gets paired off with seems to make sense, I stop shy of saying I like this oft-used device when it comes to YA books. Granted, it can work but only if it is really necessary in terms of developing an aspect of the lead character. In this novel, there really is nothing riding on the line regarding Wil’s choice of a potential suitor though it seems fairly evident who she would best be paired up with. In my mind, perhaps the other potential love interests could have remained in the shadows in that regard and simply serve as just male characters Wil interacted with as setting them up as possible love matches really does nothing to advance the plot nor Wil’s character development. But, overall, that was a minor issue for me.
In the end, The Orphan Queen might not be groundbreaking or thought-provoking but it’s still very fun, manages to have enough suspense to avoid becoming fluffy, and offers up a good female protagonist who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty in order to reclaim what was wrongfully taken from her. Be aware though that the novel ends on a big cliffhanger, leaving one character’s life in the balance, so some readers may not be too keen on that (though it didn’t bother me).
I actually intend to buy a physical copy of this, something a rarely do for books I download initially as Kindle books. But that just shows much I enjoyed it – I’m willing to pay for it twice!
It really was that good.
Language – Essentially none. A few characters swear “by the saints,” but other than perhaps a few minor profanities I might have overlooked, this book is nearly devoid of any problematic language.
Violence – There are scenes of combat and swordplay but they aren’t pervasive nor graphic. In one scene, Wil is attacked by insects, which might be cringe-worthy for sensitive readers but it isn’t gory. General peril and mayhem-inducing events occur, serving as the novel’s action set pieces, but are infrequent as a whole and avoid being too bloody or gory. Lastly, the novel ends with a character being physically attacked but the character’s fate is left unknown.
Sexual Material – None. Wil and one of her love interests kiss a few times, one of which becomes a bit of a make out session, but their interactions do not venture into any sexual territory nor do such moments dominate the book.
For a court intrigue novel, a fantasy sub-genre I normally avoid, I was actually impressed by The Orphan Queen. While it doesn’t break new ground, it does make good, comfortable use of some tried-and-true fantasy and YA staples, from forbidden magic, to fallen kingdoms, to princesses in disguise, to handsome rogues. While the occasional immaturity of the lead character and intentional attempt to add in more than one love interest might not appeal to everyone, the brisk plot and overall story do make up for it. In the end, The Orphan Queen might chart familiar seas but it’s overall fun sailing.