Starting a book series is among the trickiest things for a writer to do. After all, stories that unfold over multiple volumes often need quite a bit of exposition, so first books run the risk of spending too much time laying the groundwork and losing the reader halfway through. Then there’s the problem of the ending: Is it better to end with a cliffhanger halfway through a high-stakes scene or in the proverbial calm before the storm? Amid all this, writers must craft a compelling narrative out of a partial story. Writing is hard enough without these added difficulties.
The Frozen Crown, Greta Kelly’s debut and the first installation of her Warrior Witch duology, builds an evocative setting, a tantalizing magical system and a compelling and complex set of protagonists so well that it feels like a full story with some missing pages. Were it a standalone novel, I would have thrown it across my apartment for its unanswered questions. But as the first of a set, such a visceral response is a testament to its success. Kelly’s world is hard to resist (and well worth the investment), and the sequel demands to be read, both to finish a gripping story of politics, revenge and illicit magic and for my own peace of mind.
Princess Askia Poristkaya e-Nimri of Seravesh, to use her full title, is on the run. Her country has been overrun by the expansionist Emperor Radovan of Roven and his fire witch, Branko, as they carve their way down from the north. So Askia has turned southward, hoping to leverage her familial ties to the court of Roven’s rival empire, Vishir, to secure an army with which she can reclaim her home and birthright.
But Askia’s task is complicated by a dangerous secret: She is a death witch, one who can see, hear and commune with ghosts, and both Roven and Vishir contain many who would hunt, hurt or kill her if they knew. Furthermore, her standing in the Vishiri court is tenuous, and Radovan’s plots follow wherever she goes.
Kelly’s setting evokes the geography of the Caucasus: Roven’s climate, naming conventions and culture are inspired by the Slavic kingdoms of modern-day Russia, while Vishir is something of a conglomerate of several civilizations from Persia and the Middle East. However, this is no historical fantasy in the vein of Guy Gavriel Kay. Instead, these inspirations are clearly intended to provide a broad structure rather than information regarding the plot itself. Its details are more of a piece with K.S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, from the queen seeking allies in a foreign and often hostile land to a society that exists in an uneasy and strained truce with magic.
The story is told in a direct, sometimes terse first-person narration, which fits Askia’s blunt personality. There are moments when this writing style feels unpolished, and though it serves the characters well, it may end up clashing with the ambition of Kelly’s thematic vision. The Frozen Crown tackles so many problems, from sexism and the pitfalls of ambition to the nature of good and evil themselves, that it runs an unusual risk. While it feels and reads like a fantasy epic, it could easily veer into the darker territory occupied by the likes of Joe Abercrombie and Alex Marshall, simply because there may be too many conflicts for these characters to resolve in only two books. However, The Frozen Crown is dynamic and promising enough for both it and its forthcoming sequel to be worth the read, regardless of how the story ends.