Review—The Cursed Queen (The Impostor Queen #2) by Sarah Fine

[Goodreads Link]
Published by Simon & Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books Imprint

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Content Warnings:
Genre-typical descriptions of blood and violence. Mentions of torture. Descriptions of self-inflicted wounds including burns. Slavery. Implied rape.

The Good
– Krigere way of life is interesting
– Characters get tangled in some true complications
– The whole concept for this series has been really cool

The Bad
– Weak prose
– We spend too much time in Ansa’s head
– Ansa/Thyra aren’t treated as well as Elli/Oskar
– First person was a weak choice for this series
– Kind of racist

In the same trend as the first book, The Cursed Queen is a story with some raw potential at its core, but once again flops under short-sighted execution.

Story
The Cursed Queen is the tale of Ansa, a young warrior in the Krigere/Soturi tribe. Stolen as a raid prize as a child, Ansa’s fought fiercely for recognition and acceptance within the tribe. In the wake of their failed raid on the Kupari, the Krigere/Soturi camp is in shambles. Over four thousand or 95% of their warriors were committed to the Kupari conquest, and now they lay dead in the water. Four thousand widows have no bodies to bury. The Krigere chieftain is dead. Thyra, his daughter, has inherited his position, but with her hold is tenuous: the Krigere live for raiding, for blood and victory, and Thyra’s suggestions to sit out the winter and plant in the spring are met with disgust. Ansa and Thyra have always shared a chemistry, but because of the Krigere way of pairing warriors with only andeners (non-warriors) they cannot be mates. Still, Ansa will happily be anything Thyra asks her to be: Her wolf, her fire, her knife, her blanket. All Thyra needs to do is ask.

But Ansa has a flame mark on her leg. One which marks her as the one to inherit the Valtia’s pure magical strength where Elli inherited the Valtia’s balance and control. Believing the “Witch Queen” has cursed her with magic, Ansa struggles to her unpredictable magic under wraps while protecting and aiding the young woman she loves during one of the biggest trials of her life.

The Cursed Queen is pretty decent until the midway point. I disagree with some choices—Ansa initially lies to Thyra about the two people she kills with her magic, and the expected drama comes into play, where it would be more interesting if Ansa confessed to Thyra immediately and the book tested her tipping point—but the book has yet to suffer from the choice of a first person narrative as it does later on. There’s a lot going on, and they meld well together. Jaspar, Thyra’s cousin, arrives and invites their group to the Kriegere-held city-state, Vasterut, currently ruled by Thyra’s banished Uncle Nisse. Thyra reluctantly agrees—she doesn’t trust Nisse or Jaspar, and worried about her uncles backwards ideas, but she has bellies to feed. As Ansa struggles to tamp down on magic and burgeoning identity crisis, Thyra struggles to win over her people as chieftain as Jaspar sows mistrust among them.

It comes to a glorious head on the night they reach Vasterut: during dinner, one of Nisse’s warrior challenges Thyra’s ability as chieftain. It’s not an ordinary challenge for the fight circle: as chieftain, Thyra must fight to the death or bow out and face banishment. Thyra defeats him, but another warrior challenges her. Then another.

It’s clever and devastating and unfortunately, the last interesting thing to happen in the book.

For the remaining bulk of the book, nothing happens. Ansa’s identity crisis hits in full-force: Is she Krigere or Kupari? Is the Krigere way of life right? Is it sustainable? Is Thyra just weak and conniving? Where does the truth about the night of Nisse’s banishment lie? With Nisse and Jaspar, or Thyra? The characters raise tons of good questions, but there’s no plot to thicken it up. Ansa has a conversation with someone, briefly descends into increased emotion turmoil, and occasionally sets herself on fire. All the plot is happening in the background, the other characters relaying it to Ansa in bits and pieces. It gives the wee twist near the end a boost, but withholding information is always lazy writing.

This is a series which desperately calls for a third person perspective. There are so many different elements and plans and tragedies happening in the background, Ansa and Elli aren’t the only ones who should have a voice. What happens to Mim in the first book would have more impact if we had her point of view, not to mention Josefina and the temple wielders. The Cursed Queen desperately needs the input of the Vasterutian people during their resistance planning and of one of Thyra’s widowed andenders at the very least. These people have stories and unique points of view. The Imposter Queen series could be bolstered to such incredible heights if only the author sprinkled in a few more perspectives. Thyra’s alliance with the Vasterutians wouldn’t be so white saviour-y if they had their own subplot, and we saw more of their input—they really were responsible for much more than anyone gives them credit for. There are so many stories, so much potential emotion and darkness here, and the author simply skims over all of it.

As much as I dislike the Krigere’s bloodthirsty way of life from a moral point of view, it was oddly refreshing to read about in some ways, since we actually got same-sex couples with no homophobia attached. Elli had a crush on her handmaiden, and she seemed to feel shame in confessing it to Oskar, but with no other couples in the first book, there was no comparison to be certain where it stemmed from. The Krigere still have weird rules on top/bottom household dynamic roles. One person in the pair was a warrior who hunted and raided, and the other was an andener, who would take up any manner of non-combat duties in camp. Thyra, who was a good warrior but not a blood thirsty one, but also not an andender, raised good questions about their way of life, and it’s a shame her feelings on the matter, as well as her role, weren’t explored more.

Characters
Although her impulsive nature was frustrating, Ansa was a solid character with a lot of history, some of it not explored as fully and effectively as it could’ve been, and went through solid character growth. Her issues about where she came from, her loneliness, her desperation to belong, her devotion made her a more well-rounded character than Elli, and though she was stalled up in the last half, certainly less wishy-washy. (She still suffered from a lack of decision making, unfortunately.) Thyra was an excellent counter-point to Ansa. Ansa struggles to understand if she is Krigere or Kupari, and if her fierce nature made her a better Krigere than it would a Kupari, while Thyra, born the chieftain’s daughter, struggles with how she is not quite the Krigere she should be. I disagree with some of the choices in their relationship—Ansa’s lying, for one—but overall I preferred them to Elli and Oskar. Ansa and Thyra actually had some goddamn texture and depth as characters—Elli and Oskar feel like assembly line YA characters.

Ansa also had a strong dynamic with Sander, another warrior taken in as a raid prize child. As the antagonists, Nisse and Jaspar were believable as both characters and bad guys, although Ansa’s scenes with Jaspar were incredibly frustrating to read. (The first time I read the book, I put it down for two solid weeks, certain the story was going to Go There and Ansa would wind up in a relationship with Jaspar.)

Writing Style
Fine’s prose is a mixed bag. She has a solid vocabulary and a sharp vision in terms of setting and emotion, and there’s a few great turns of phrase. But it’s amateurish—bogged down by adverbs and passive tone, filter words, and extraneous words: too many necessary thats, onlys, justs, etc. Ansa, like Elli does a lot of spelling out the obvious and belaboring everything which could possibly happen in her internal monologues. It’s worse in the second half—it’s basically one long internal monologue. Action scenes tended towards messy and chaotic as they went on. It was especially hard to keep track of Ansa in the last one big one.

Themes and Representation
Sound the bells! I can’t speak for the series as a whole, but for this book we’ve got a bisexual girl who ends up in an f/f relationship!

Except… it’s hard not to compare them to how Fine treated Elli and Oskar. It seemed lots of time was dedicated to cutesy Elli/Oskar moments—kissing, all the damn cuddling and hand-holding for “medical” reasons. Ansa spent half the book separated from Thyra, doubting her every word and arguing with her, and the engineered warrior/andener angle which keeps them romantically apart for the first half is painfully contrived. Ansa is surrounded by more prominent male characters than not, it seems: Sander, Nisse, Jaspar, Sig. Too many issues, like what happened to Thyra’s andeners, are left in the background.

Plus, there’s a huge issue with how the Vasterutians are treated, and it’s much more complicated than the white saviour issue of the Krigere aiding the resistance. The Vasterutians are dark-skinned—Halina, specifically, is black, and her hair is always, always referred to as wild. It’s super sketchy and racist when the author’s most frequent descriptor for the only prominent black character is a synonym for untamed.

Recommended For…
The Cursed Queen is better than the first book, but still suffers from the choice to tell the story in a first person narrative, bumpy prose, and huge plot issues in the latter half. It’s almost worth it if you’re really, really desperate for fantasy f/f warrior couples.

Genres: Young Adult, LGBT+, Fantasy

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