Book Title: Eridani’s Crown
Author: Alex Shvartsman
Publication Date: October 22, 2019
Indie Athenaeum Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Young Princess Eridani and her brother, Prince Danchu, are in training with their tutor Gavron. They’re preparing to eventually succeed their parents in taking over the rule of their kingdom, Kozhad. However, when a team comes to assassinate them, they must go on the run with Caer, their instructor in the martial arts. Then, they try to find out who killed their family and took their lands! This is just the beginning of a perilous journey for them filled with few allies and even fewer resources.
Over the span of many years, Eridani struggles to be fair to her kingdom while protecting it from threats within and without. All the while, she has her eyes on increasing the size of Kozhad to achieve these goals. As she struggles to do so, she uses cunning strategy and ingenious methods to build her army and outmaneuver the many enemies arrayed against her. But can she be successful when all the odds are stacked against her?
This novel is very much driven by its plot and never stops to get stuck in any one particular tangent. Every scene in the novel is important in the telling of its tale and in making its point. Any number of ideas presented here could easily be the plot or the noteworthy finale of an entire novel instead of just one piece of the much larger epic being told here.
For example, some of the stereotypical plot points in fantasy fiction include things like taking revenge on those who directly killed their parents, killing the patron who ordered those deaths through shady machinations, the unjust slaughter of loved ones or wanting the power to rule a large kingdom under one banner.
The impressive nature of the author’s storytelling is much broader, more imaginative and more innovative than that. It also means that while there are big victories and conclusions to some important storylines, it also pales in comparison to what comes after it, with other, lengthier stories to be told throughout the rest of the novel. This kind of storytelling skill makes for exhilarating reading!
There are many different elements all mixed in this novel. Politics, economics, social classes, rules of governance and more are blended into a perfect fantasy tale. In this genre, there are power plays within the council of rulers, portentous prophecies, armies massing, invasions, social classes and royal bloodlines too. While this kind of thing is to be expected, the way it is utilized is not. Like everything else, all of this is grist for the storytelling mill and is used thoughtfully and in interesting ways.
This kingdom is divided into several different empires and lands. Each one has its history, legends, religion, and populace. There’s careful attention to world-building and the history of the Heart, which is the continent on which they all reside.
It places special attention to the legend of Kalatar the conqueror, who once united all the land through hard-fought battles and brutal strategies. A warrior through and through, his myth is an important one and plays a much larger role as the story evolves and reaches its conclusion.
Each of the characters has a story arc that spans the entirety of the novel. Each of their loyalties come into play as Eridani hears a critical prophesy from a sorceress. This prophecy is written off by Eridani but how it affects her over the course of the novel made me question how it would play out. As always, the novel surprised me there too.
But it’s Eridani, princess at large, who evolves the most. This story spans decades, witnessing Eridani’s growth as a tactical genius and clever ruler. Her empathy and caring for her army, her residents and her kingdom define her as a benevolent and progressive ruler. She says what she means and follows through on her promises. How many queens do that? As her acumen grows, so does her kingdom. At first, this is a successful strategy.
As she accumulates power, she uses it to make life better for all. Despising those who use power for their gain, she attempts to be compassionate and generous while also setting an example for those who would try to depose her.
Eridani is a very open-minded ruler. She includes women in her army and lowers taxes and eliminates the middleman to reduce the potential for graft and corruption. She also wants to improve the quality of life for all people in different social classes, including peasants, thinking of all walks of life in the process. She’s open-minded in thinking about the larger picture of ruling an entire kingdom and not just looking out for herself or those nobles are in the same social class as themselves.
It’s what comes after this that the narrative begins to tell a different tale. When the ends start to justify the means and the moral compass that guided her becomes lost, Eridani changes into something she might not have intended. It’s the slippery slope of justifications in her rise to power and a never-ending thirst for victory at all costs which becomes an all-consuming quest for her.
Everything is handled carefully, subtly and in an unconventional manner. The reckoning it leads into is exquisite and dark, as all threads carefully laid out are woven into the final tapestry. Once we see what that completed tapestry looks like, I was awestruck by what is revealed and how it did so.
All the characters, from Savron to Caer, from Toval to Sana, from Eridani’s advisers and enemies alike, all of them have a role to play in this grand tale. I felt and cared for each one of them and the travails they endured. Except for the bad guys, because they’re bad people and I wanted them to get their comeuppance. How they all connect to Eridani’s rise to power and the impact the sorceress’ prophecy has on their relationship with her is all fascinating and intricate.
One of the big reasons I enjoy reading this author so much is the fact that he eschews the standard tropes that can be found in genre fiction like this. I’ve read and enjoyed his collection of short stories “The Golem of Deneb Seven and Other Stories” and he ably demonstrates those skills with gusto. Just when I thought I might be able to predict how a crucial moment might turn out; I find out I’m wrong. This kind of storytelling defies expectations at every turn and makes for a more delightful reading experience. I read a lot so when a find a predictable story, it’s disappointing to experience.
However, in this novel, I don’t have to worry about that. These unexpected turns in the narrative happen frequently and it’s only after the fact that I realize that the author builds up a scene to make you think one thing might occur but then it cleverly moves in a different direction. I even tried to predict when this might happen as a read a scene but then I found out I was incorrect. Again. I love it when a novel surprises me like this!
Here are a couple of examples of this on a larger scale: magic usually plays a larger role in stories like this and tends to dominate the narrative. However, it’s used much more sparingly but it does come into play at crucial moments and has a tremendous impact on events when it does. Even then, Eridani is skeptical of magic and questions whether it even exists. It’s also used imaginatively in ways I’ve (mostly) never seen before either.
This idea also applies to religion and how it is used here. Usually, the rulers of kingdoms use religion as a justification for their actions and demonstrate piousness towards their chosen gods. That does happen here but not with Eridani, who is always the skeptic. Here, she questions the utility of religion and how it’s used as a motivator of people’s actions. Eridani uses religion pretty subversively, as a tool for manipulation than as a true belief system that she adheres to and certainly doesn’t let it guide her actions.
One of the best examples of skewering tropes is this self-aware line:
“…the worst enemy in hand to hand combat wasn’t the opponent holding the sword; it was exhaustion. Swinging a heavy chunk of steel was hard work.”
There have been many times I’ve read a story that doesn’t take real-life factors into consideration at all. To see this kind of attention to detail is praiseworthy to me.
My only small problem was that there was considerable effort put into defying tropes and playing against expectations in many ways except one. Once the broader strokes of the plot were laid out, it became somewhat predictable after it reached a certain point.
However, even then, while I could see where the story was going, I still couldn’t guess how it was going to get there. The uniqueness of that journey and all that happened during it demonstrates remarkable storytelling prowess. Even if that destination and the lesson it teaches are obvious, it was still so well done, I was held spellbound by the tale it told.
This is an ambitious saga about the rise of an intelligent and shrewd princess. The development of her kingdom, amazing resourcefulness, utilization of devious methods and a caring attitude for all except for her enemies make her a formidable adversary and a protagonist to root for. Overall, her journey from beginning to end was a sensational and fast-paced read with meticulous plotting and memorable characters.
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Previous Indie Athenaeum book reviews about stories by Alex Shvartsman include “The Golem of Deneb Seven and Other Stories.“