Friday, 26 March 2021

#CBR13 Book 9: "How to Catch a Queen" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 53 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
When Shanti Mohapi weds the king of Njaza, her dream of becoming a queen finally comes true. But it’s nothing like she imagined. Shanti and her husband may share an immediate and powerful attraction, but her subjects see her as an outsider, and everything she was taught about being the perfect wife goes disastrously wrong.

A king must rule with an iron fist, and newly crowned King Sanyu was born perfectly fitted for the gauntlet, even if he wishes he weren’t. He agrees to take a wife as is required of him, though he doesn’t expect to actually fall in love. Even more vexing? His beguiling new queen seems to have the answers to his country’s problems—except no one will listen to her.

By day, they lead separate lives. By night, she wears the crown, and he bows to her demands in matters of politics and passion. When turmoil erupts in their kingdom and their marriage, Shanti goes on the run, and Sanyu must learn whether he has what it takes both to lead his people and to catch his queen.

The engagement/marriage of convenience is quite a common trope in historical romance, it's harder to pull off in contemporary ones (although, by all means, it happens all the time, even though the author tends to have to get a bit more creative). Shanti has wanted to become a queen since she was a little girl, and has worked very hard to become a beautiful, poised, fit, and well-educated woman who would be the prize of any ruler. She doesn't want to become queen for the prestige, wealth, or title, but because she genuinely wants to take part in the day-to-day ruling of a kingdom, and trying to make the world a better place for as many as possible. When her profile is picked on and she is married off to Prince Sanyu of Njaza literally on his father's deathbed, she has already done thorough research into the country's resources, infrastructure, social conditions, and what challenges the country, still trying to recover from centuries of colonisation, are facing. Sadly for her, however, the tradition in Njaza is for women to be seen and not heard and this applies at all levels of society.

Sanyu's role models for marriage were his now-dead father, who kept replacing his queen every four months or his father's closest advisor (now Sanyu's), who never married. Sanyu's mother disappeared after she bore him, seemingly quite happy to be free of the kingdom, and the two ex-revolutionaries raised Sanyu to believe that any expression of softer emotion or personal need is unforgivable softness. Having fought a civil war to liberate Njaza from colonial rule, the two elder men were big on spreading propaganda about how strong, glorious, and unbeatable the nation was, and Sanyu's father ruled with an iron fist. Sanyu, who suffers from occasional crippling anxiety, doesn't even want the throne but has no choice but to step up upon his father's death. While he finds Shanti very attractive the first time he sees her, before the wedding, he then barely gives her a thought for several months after the coronation, grieving his father and trying to get some sort of idea of what the job of the king actually entails. Not that his royal council or advisors seem to want him to think too hard for himself, they seem to have very firm ideas of how the country should be ruled (no changes whatsoever from his father's rule). Meanwhile, the country's finances are suffering, a lot of the populace are starting to be unhappy with the lack of progress and innovation, while the royal council's isolationist views are keeping Njaza from making lucrative international deals that would benefit them both diplomatically and economically. 

Resigned to the fact that she'll be sent packing after her four month marriage trial is over (after about three months she's barely seen her husband), Shanti is nevertheless doing what she can to make a difference in the country. She's been sneaking out of the palace in disguise at night, trying to help out a group of women organising protests and trying to affect change from a local bookstore. She is rather surprised when Sanyu shows up at her private rooms one evening, asking to hear her suggestions and plans, and suddenly wanting to act on the clear attraction that's been there between them since their first meeting. However, he keeps their growing closeness a secret and only shows up at her quarters at night. Is he ever going to work through his anxiety and stand up to his advisors, becoming the husband that Shanti wishes for and the progressive king that Njaza needs?

It seems to me that a common theme in all of Alyssa Cole's contemporary romances featuring fictional royals and the people they fall in love with, is that the heroes rarely, if ever, prove themselves worthy of the awesome heroines. Despite almost throwing my e-reader across the room because of my frustration with A Duke by Default, I ended up reading all of the main novels in Cole's previous series, Reluctant Royals, and I found things to like in each book. Having once again heard many great things about this new book, I gave it a try, and mostly liked it, even though the "runaway royals" of the series title is a stretch in this book. While Shanti eventually gets sick of Sanyu's inability to confront his sort-of-uncle/head adviser and leaves the palace for a little while, she doesn't exactly go very far, and I would say calling her actions running away is exaggerating wildly. 

While there are a lot of dumb men in this book, Sanyu's close friend and one of the junior members of his council is very cool. I also liked the Njazan tradition of triad marriages, which I would happily have seen explored in more detail. There are sort of cameo appearances from quite a few of the protagonists in the previous series via a group chat Shanti is accepted into, and it was nice to "hear from" some of the other women that I'd come to quite like. 

While I found this to be a perfectly OK novel, I'm not sure I'll be re-reading it any time soon. One of the two heroines for the next books shows up in a very memorable scene, though, and I hope that her book, having a lesbian couple at the centre may escape the unworthy partner trope, since both protagonists are women. We shall see. I'm not willing to give up on Ms. Cole yet, but she's now on "get books from the library until they are on sale for less than 3 bucks" list.

Judging a book by its cover: The frocks on Alyssa Cole's contemporary novels are always amazing. The female cover model they've used to portray Shanti seems pretty spot on, in looks and general bearing. The dude who I'm supposing is meant to be Sanyu doesn't look anything like what our hero is described as (my mental image was Winston Duke as M'Baku). He's far too skinny looking and only has designer stubble, no actual beard. Do better, cover designers!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

No comments:

Post a Comment