Four Dead Queens, published on February 26th, is the debut novel from Astrid Scholte. A murder mystery set in a fantasy world involving Quadara, which is made up of four regions: Eonia, Toria, Archia and Ludia. After hundreds of years of unrest, a system of rule was determined to maintain the peace. One queen from each region would reign from the palace to represent the best interests of their respective citizens. Together, but apart.
Throughout the book, Scholte artfully lays out essential Queenly laws that are quintessential to the success of this system and provisions for heirs, length of rule, actions forbidden, and those required. She wastes no time revealing the restlessness of royalty and the secrets that lie within the palace walls. In Shakespearean fashion, when you try the hardest to control your fate, sometimes you often end up walking right into what you fear the most.
If that wasn’t enough intrigue to keep you in suspense there is the black market area of Toria ready to wreak havoc during this perfect storm. Master of ceremonies, Mackiel and his best dipper/thief, Keralie steal the most valuable wares from other quadrants to auction off each night on the black market.
However, when Mackiel has Keralie steal Eonia technology from Eonist messenger Varin a new conspiracy begins to unravel and suddenly Keralie, Mackiel and Varin’s worlds collide with the very fates of the four queens and their very lives.
Here in lies my only, only fault in this amazing debut. The fast paced, world-building, thrilling suspense and incredible character building with the queens, and the dynamics of their relationships would lead me to expect the same of Mackiel and Keralie. Yet it isn’t there. There are vital pieces of their character background that is missing from the beginning of the book. Later on, when certain chapters that are incredibly well written with brilliant structure and dialogue between the two, it is difficult to glean everything necessary because we don’t have enough backstory to truly know who is playing who, nor are we given the chance to truly and fully invest in their relationship.
Going back to the queens, which are essential characters and the dynamics of their relationships, the exact opposite is true. Not only does Scholte thoroughly develop them as people. She also brilliantly unfolds their relationships with each other by interweaving it as secrets and pieces of the mystery are unveiled. Additionally, she makes each quadrant the queens represent characters onto themselves. These provides an additional dimension to the story and to the personality of each queen. I would like to have seen this applied to Mackiel and Keralie, whom seemed rushed in their development.
Lastly the murder mystery development, structure and plot twists were laid out in a torturous way that left me breathless and feeling like I had been punched in the gut right till the end.
Over and over I thought I got this! Then Scholte drops a bomb and you rearrange your thinking. So, then you think you have it, yet again. And then you realize you know nothing. Jon Snow thinks he knows nothing?
Up until the final pages you will be guessing. You will be yelling back at the book. You will throw the book. Whether your reading partner is someone in the room, your pets or your poor neighbors? Your behavior will send them running for shelter. For me? It was my poor cats.
This book has been on the must-reads for a reason. Unique, twisty and captivating. You won’t regret it for a minute. Run, don’t walk and curl up when you have plenty of time. You won’t be able to put it down.