Two new fantasy series place women with magical powers in the world of gladiatorial combat.
In Kill the Queen, the first installment of Jennifer Estep’s Crown of Shards series, Lady Everleigh Safira Winter Blair—equipped with a “mouthful of fancy names” and a nose full of mundane magic—is 17th in line for the throne of Bellona, a kingdom that keeps its combat close and its courtly mannerisms closer. Orphaned by assassins at a young age, Evie has been playing the dull game of palace diplomacy for most of her life, careful to stay on the safe side of her cruel cousin Vasilia, a gifted magic user and the daughter of the queen. This condition of peace is doomed from the first sentence, and Evie quickly finds herself on the run after Vasilia massacres the rest of the royal court. Tracking down a former palace guard who now runs a gladiatorial troupe, the untrained Evie slips into the ranks of the professional fighters, hiding her royal identity while secretly carrying evidence of her cousin’s deed.
Although “Game of Thrones” comparisons are inevitable, and an emphasis on combat fashion assures that The Hunger Games references won’t be far behind (Evie, costumed as a black swan for a death match: “Midnight-black makeup ringed my eyes in thick, heavy circles before fanning out into thin, delicate streaks that resembled shard-like feathers”), several memorable sections seem more indebted to the humbler fantasies of Gail Carson Levine. The opening scene, in which palace cook Isobel instructs Evie in the finer points of pie-making, calls to mind Ella’s friendship with the kitchen fairy Mandy in Ella Enchanted. While the action moves as swiftly as Vasilia’s magical lightning, the story benefits from the author’s decision to endow Evie with a less pyrotechnic skill set: a supernatural sense of smell (initially useful in the kitchen, it proves nothing to sneeze at in a world where so many goblets are poisoned) and a kind of antimagic which serves to defuse opponents rather than overpower them. Introducing a world where magical capacity is inherent and warrior skill is learned, Kill the Queen is a shiny, rapid-fire read for those who like their revenge served in two sittings.
While Kill the Queen embraces the dazzle of the knife’s edge as it builds to a climactic clash, Grace Draven’s earthier Phoenix Unbound proves immune to gladiatorial glam and more susceptible to romance. This first book in Draven’s The Fallen Empire series introduces Gilene, who uses her fire magic to serve as her village’s sacrificial victim in the Kraelian Empire’s ritual burning. Her ability to survive the ordeal, year after year, saves her peers from death but fails to protect her from the painful side effects of her powers or from routine violence at the hands of the Empire’s enslaved gladiators.
When the sympathetic gladiator Azarion sees through the magical illusion that Gilene uses to pull the deception, he harnesses her power as a means of escape and afterward takes her to his clan, where “fire witches” are revered, to bolster his claim to leadership. Rather than romanticize the power struggle between captor and captive, the story strikes an immediate balance between its male and female leads by making them equal victims of the larger power that places them at odds.
In Draven’s setting—more ancient and bleak than that of Kill the Queen—magic is a comparative rarity, which necessitates a stronger reliance on tactile skills. Gilene’s ability to summon fire is treated as a literal craft, an “ebb and flow of magic” that she “spool[s] . . . out slowly.” Both books keep the action coming and promise more to follow, but while Kill the Queen finds its fulfillment in arming an unimposing protagonist for battle, Phoenix Unbound seeks the softer side of characters who have been fighting all their lives. Despite its shorter page count, Phoenix Unbound feels longer than Kill the Queen, but its gradual quality is by design, and students of the slow-burn romance will likely wish for still more time in its campfire glow.