In last year's The Frozen Crown, Greta Kelly set up Askia, the exiled Queen of Seravesh, as a confident leader struggling to survive amid the schemes and machinations of the Vishir court. But during what should have been her triumph, a political marriage to the Emperor of Vishir, she was kidnapped by Emperor Radovan of Roven. During the attack, the emperor and his senior wife, Ozura, were murdered, but not before Ozura pledged her soul to Askia's service. For Askia is not just royalty: She is also a death witch, a rare magical talent who can both commune with and command the dead. Radovan intends her to be his seventh queen, to seal her magic in an Aellium stone with their wedding vows and then to kill her and take her power for his own, as he has done six times before. But Askia has no intention of going quietly.
In Kelly's follow-up, The Seventh Queen, Askia has morphed into a ruthless manipulator, willing to use any hint of leverage to save her own life and to prevent her world from falling under the dominion of the power-hungry Radovan. While this characterization is something of a leap from the prior book, it suits Askia's nature as a doggedly competent survivor. Kelly's incisive prose, along with a plot that continues to defy fantasy tropes by focusing almost entirely on court intrigue rather than displays of magical or martial prowess, renders such narrative discontinuities forgivable.
One of the highlights of The Seventh Queen may be Radovan himself. In the prior book, he was a sinister yet distant threat, easily dismissed as the inevitable emperor motivated only by the bottomless quest for power. Here, Radovan is revealed as an odd sort of failure, a capricious dictator who began by genuinely trying to right the world's wrongs. Kelly's world is one dominated by magical elites, and Radovan is one of the only characters who questions this status quo.
Radovan is much more compelling than when he was a remote evil, but the treatment of his character is also indicative of the loss of the moral complexity that made The Frozen Crown such an interesting take on fantasy. The Seventh Queen dismisses Radovan's actions as those of a simple madman whose policies are only twisted parodies of true reform, refusing to admit that there was any merit in his initial crusade and uncomplicatedly championing its aristocratic, magically gifted protagonist. While there is plenty of dramatic tension, the most surprising part of how Kelly concludes her duology is how closely it hews to the standards of high fantasy and abandons the thematic ambition of The Frozen Crown.
While not truly groundbreaking, The Seventh Queen has a compelling villain and an unusual focus on courtly maneuvering for a fantasy novel. It is a wholly satisfying conclusion whose only real shortcoming is its inability to fully realize the ambition of Kelly's debut.